“My work is good. It’s always been good. My series on organizing in the Lower East Side –”
“That’s true,” says Eastman. “Absolutely I’ll want you to look over all of Reed’s dispatches, give the women’s angle on it – well, Bryant will be doing that also – but the Jewish angle, too. That’s good. That’s important. Most important, you can do it from here.”
“I speak Yiddish fluently, and Russian –”
“Less fluently. You really think your Yiddish is going to help you in the streets of Petrograd right now? Think again, kid.”
He’s not being unkind. That doesn’t stop the sting. So Shprintze’s had a long time to forget most of the Russian she picked up as a kid in Anatevka – so what? She’s been working on picking it back up again. The most exciting things in the world right now are happening in Russian. She knows it’ll all come back to her quickly, if her editor will just give her a chance.
“Look,” she says, and plays her last card, the one she’s been saving. “My sister and brother-in-law – they were up in Siberia for a decade, they’ve got real credentials, they’ve rubbed elbows with every Jewish radical in Petrograd – I know John Reed’s got the name, but he’s from Oregon, of all things, Eastman, he’s a bourgeois American playboy, he can’t get the angle on this that I can. This is my country, I have family there, I was born there!”
Eastman sighs, and leans back against his chair, rubbing his elbows. “Shprintze,” he says. “You’re a good kid, but you’re, what, twenty? You want to go to Petrograd alone? In the middle of a revolution, in the middle of a war? What’ll they say about me, if I send you?”
“They’ll say you put your money where your mouth is,” Shprintze retorts. “Emma Goldman says Mother Earth is the only magazine in New York that has faith in women’s capabilities. Are you going to prove her right? Anyway, Bessie Beatty’s gone too, for Bulletin, and –”
“Oh, boy, oh, boy,” says Eastman, amused in spite of himself. “Look who’s got a mouth on her. Is Emma Goldman gonna pay your way to Petrograd? Is the San Francisco Bulletin?”
Shprintze folds her arms. “Will you?”
“Well,” says Eastman, “I’m not sending you instead of Reed, that’s for sure.” He gives Shprintze a long, considering look. “Your sister and brother-in-law, you say? So they can put you up? Give you a place to stay, put food in your mouth?”
“Sure!” says Shprintze, recklessly.
In fact, Shprintze has no idea if Hodl and Pertshik have any room at their place for a little sister they last saw when she took up approximately half the amount of space she does now. Come to that, she’s not even entirely sure they have a place to call their own, in the chaos that is currently Petrograd. It’s entirely possible they’re sharing a one-bedroom apartment with half a dozen other radicals and taking it in turns to sleep on the beds.
On the other hand, if that’s the case, that’s all to the good, isn’t it? That puts her at the center of the action, right where she needs to be.
“Okay,” says Eastman. He takes in a breath, then lets it out in a sigh. “Okay, kid. I’ll help you raise the money for the trip across the Continent.”
Shprintze stares at him. He looks back, ruefully. It doesn’t seem like he’s joking. “You will?”
“What you just said, a woman’s capabilities – you’re right. It’s a good look for The Masses. Plenty of our readers will support it. And if I move some things around, I can probably front you the pay for the first –” He reaches behind him for his accounting book, squints at it, and then looks back up at Shprintze. “Six articles you write from Petrograd. But that’s it, you understand? Housing, food, all that – I can’t give you what I’m giving Reed. He’s a name, and you’re still brand new. It’s simple as that. You got it?”
“I got it,” says Shprintze, without stopping to think – that’s what you say to your editor, generally – and then stops, as the enormity of what she’s just committed to catches up with her.
There’s always a funny moment, just exactly when you get what you want, when you’re not sure that you were right to want it at all.
She swallows it down, the sudden stuck lump of breath in her throat, and says, “I got it. I’ll – you won’t regret it. I promise.”
“Sure I will,” says Eastman, dryly. “When you get yourself hit by a stray bullet out there, and I get your nice old parents in here sobbing and cursing me in Yiddish, I’ll regret it, all right.”
“I’ll make sure they don’t have your address,” Shprintze tells him. Her heart is pounding double-time in her chest, with the kind of energy it usually reserves for a stirring speech or a pretty girl.
When she left Russia, she was a kid, and it was the old world. That was what they said, all her family; they were leaving the old world for the new. “Hey, Shprintzele, why are you crying? Look, it’s the goldine medina!”
Now Petrograd is the new world again, and she, Shprintze, is going to see it.
And she’s going alone.
First, there’s all the chaos of the goodbyes: her mother crying, her father blustering, every next-doorke popping in with an opinion. Tsaytl and Bielke go through her luggage to make sure she’s packed all the right things, while the nieces and nephews all shout for her to bring them presents. Like Shprintze’s going to be able to go shopping in the middle of a revolution! But the kids don’t understand, they’ve lived almost their whole lives in these tenement apartments, anyone going anywhere is an adventure.
And then there’s the part where her eldest sister Tsaytl takes her aside behind their mother’s sewing table, where their father and the neighbors can’t see, and presses a bundle of fabric into her hands. “You’re stopping in Kraków, aren’t you?” she whispers. “Bielke helped Mama with the shawl, and Motl and I sewed –”
“Tsaytl,” says Shprintze, “I’ve got no room in my suitcase – I can barely fit the typewriter. I’ll give Khave all your love, you know I will, but send the presents by post!”
“Keep your voice down!” hisses Tsaytl.
Shprintze resists the temptation to roll her eyes. They both know their father reads every one of Khave’s letters, though he does it at night so they can all pretend he doesn’t. She hands the bundle of fabric firmly back to Tsaytl. “Make it a race,” she tells her. “See if me or the package reaches Khave first.”
“Half the time the packages don’t reach at all these days,” says Tsaytl, “so God forbid you should take longer. Really, Shprintze, if it were up to me – to go by yourself, with the world like it is, and all the way to St. Petersburg! –”
“Petrograd,” Shprintze says. “Don’t worry, Tsaytl! Come on, you brought two kids over from Poland, and sewing machine, and Motl – you think you had an easier time of it than me? That’s more work, not less!”
“Motl managed everything very well,” says Tsaytl, repressively, and Shprintze snorts –.she loves her brother-in-law, he’s a good and honest soul, but it’s Tsaytl who runs that family and no mistake. “Also,” Tsaytl goes on, “when we came over, Europe was a little bit less on fire –”
“Is that so?” Shprintze tosses back. “As I remember, it was pretty much always on fire for us! Now it’s on fire for everybody, why should we think it’s any worse? And in Russia, at least, getting better –” She sees Tsaytl open her mouth to offer an opinion about current events in Russia, and goes on hastily, “No, let’s not fight about it, Tsaytl, I promise I know what I’m doing. I’m not the first reporter that’s gone out there. It’ll be smooth sailing for me until I hit Petrograd – and Hodl and Pertshik will watch out for me once I get to there.”
“Hodl and Pertshik can barely watch out for themselves,” announces their mother, bustling up behind them. “Shprintze, you’ve a good head on your shoulders, you won’t let yourself get caught up in their nonsense, all right?”
Tsaytl and Shprintze exchange glances. Their mother Golde reads no English. She doesn’t know the kind of thing that Shprintze writes for The Masses. Tsaytl’s English is not so much better, but she makes the effort anyway; God only knows how she has the time and often Shprintze wishes she didn’t.
“She’ll be careful,” says Tsaytl. “She knows how we worry. Shprintzele, she’s a good girl, she wouldn’t break our hearts by getting herself into trouble.”
She aims a smile at Shprintze. It’s a smile Shprintze’s known well all her life, and it says: you better not, or you’ll be sorry.
When Shprintze was a little kid, that particular smile of Tsaytl’s was more effective at getting her to do what she was told than all her father’s shouts and her mother’s threats put together. But Shprintze’s not little anymore. She smiles back sweetly at her eldest sister, and says, “I was just telling Tsaytl, she doesn’t have to worry about me a bit.”
She’s never spent more than a day away from her family before. She knows that she’ll miss them while she’s gone; she can already feel the ache of it, that she likely won’t see her father’s birthday, her nephew’s bar mitzvah. Still, right at this moment, when she finally manages to get out of the apartment to catch the train to the port at Hoboken, it’s such a relief to be out from under the weight of their concern that she almost feels she could burst into song. She’d start skipping, if her suitcase weren’t so heavy.
She’s halfway down the street when she hears someone call out, “Is that Shprintze?”
For a moment, she’s tempted to simply keep walking and pretend she hasn’t heard. It feels like she’s been having the same conversations over and over again for the past three days; does she really have to have it one more time?
Still, once she sets foot on the boat tomorrow it’ll be weeks at least before she sees a familiar face again. She breathes out, and does her best to let her resentment at the idea of one more goodbye empty her lungs along with the air. “Hey,” she says, turning, “yes, I’m sorry, I’m – oh! It’s you.”
“Thanks for stopping,” says the fiddler, and smiles at her.
Shprintze’s cheeks turn pink – stupid! The woman has to be twenty years older than her at least. She was already an adult, more or less, when they all came over to New York; she’s been an adult, more or less, for as long as Shprintze can remember. You wouldn’t know to look at her, though. As far as anyone could see, she hasn’t aged a day since she was their neighbor in Anatevka, always somewhere on the sidelines when anything was happening, with her fiddle and a hat out for a coin.
Through her childhood, Shprintze hadn’t found the fiddler worth any particular attention. She’d just always been there, like Papa and Mama and her sisters and Yenta and everyone else who formed the fabric of her life. So what if she didn’t look like anyone else, didn’t dress like anyone else, didn’t act like anyone else? That was Anatevka tradition, too, it seemed, and, like many traditions, dull and routine enough that it never occurred to Shprintze to ask why.
Then there suddenly came a time, when Shprintze was around thirteen, when the confidence with which the fiddler wore her men’s coat and cap had become all at once extremely important. Shprintze had spent a lot of time noticing the fiddler, that year – and then pulling her gaze away, cheeks heated, before she could be caught staring.
Why ‘caught?’ Why shouldn’t she look at a neighbor? She couldn’t have said, only that she desperately did not want it to happen. Even less could she ask ‘hey, you know, the fiddler, who’s always around? What’s her name, really? Where does she live, do you know?’ All that was an absolute impossibility, for reasons that, at the age of thirteen, she really couldn’t have put into words one bit.
Now Shprintze is twenty, and it’s a different time for her, that’s for sure! She can look back fondly at that kid of thirteen, who’d never kissed a girl behind the Bund hall, or flirted with followers of Margaret Anderson at an anarchist rally – that kid who thought a woman that she’d known from childhood, who wears an old zeyde’s castoffs and doesn’t speak a word of English and has never expressed a single political opinion in Shprintze’s hearing, was the height of romantic fantasy. She’s moved past all that!
Old habits die a little hard, that’s all. And so Shprintze’s face is pink, still, as she says, “Of course, of course. I’m in a hurry, but it’s good to see you before I go – you know I’m going to Petrograd, yes?”
“Yes,” says the fiddler, “that’s why I’m so glad to catch you.”
Shprintze nods, sagely. Of course the fiddler knows. Everybody knows. In a minute, the fiddler will say what every other neighbor has said: oy, what a trip! Are you sure you’ll be safe? Oh, well, but you’ll see your sister, and that crazy radical man of hers, and maybe if you’ve the time you could bring a letter to my cousin, who lives in the Pod'iacheskii neighborhood –
But in fact what the fiddler says is: “Since you’re going, I’m thinking I might come with you.”
In Shprintze’s childhood memories, the journey across the Atlantic is an endless miserable nightmare – nothing but crying and seasickness, and the sound of other people crying, and the smell of other people being seasick.
In fact, even with the delays of the war, the trip takes a perfectly reasonable eight and a half days, which is nearly as much time as she’d spent packing beforehand.
For the first three of those days, she lies flat in her tiny bed in her tiny third-class cabin suffering from the predictable ocean-induced nausea. On the fourth day, she wakes up and realizes that sometime overnight her stomach has adjusted. She feels perfectly fine, and capable of doing things.
This leaves her in a strange situation: for the first time in her life that she can remember, she has nothing that she’s particularly responsible for doing.
Well, there’s always her Russian, which – as Eastman made very clear – leaves plenty to be desired. She spends an hour attempting to study before the sound of animated voices arguing in the third-class stateroom down the hall distracts her from her focus. Then she starts composing a letter to her family before realizing that all the details she wants to put in (a whole cabin to herself! And to think Eastman apologized for the penury of the travel arrangements!) should probably go in a travel log for her editor, who’ll be impressed with her fortitude, rather than a letter to her sisters, who’ll just razz her for thinking she’s such a big macher.
The letter is in Yiddish, and the travel log is in English, and between all that and her secondhand Russian grammar book, she’s starting to get muddled. Words keep crossing over into places they don’t belong. She realizes, long after she should have, that the voices down the hall are in fact speaking heavily-accented Russian – or maybe it’s Ukrainian, just a step or two off from anything she can understand, though sometimes they’ll break out into a snatch of song that’s familiar. Finally she slams the typewriter back into its case and goes up onto the deck to clear her head.
She finds the fiddler leaning with her elbows on the railing, looking out at the endless blue in the general direction of what Shprintze thinks is probably Sweden. (It’s the direction the ship is headed, anyway, so if Sweden isn’t out there somewhere, they’re very lost.)
Shprintze pauses a moment, then plunks herself down against the next bit of railing. The fiddler doesn’t turn, but smiles a welcome out into the ocean. “Sholem aleichem, Shprintze.”
It’s the first time in three days she’s heard a word of mameloshn. She’s startled by the sudden sense of grounding that she feels – startled, and not all that pleased about it, either. This is meant to be her big adventure. She’d never intended to bring a bit of home with her.
Instead of giving an answering ‘aleichem sholem,’ she says, “You never did tell me why you’re going to Petrograd.”
“Oh, well,” says the fiddler, “I’ve got family there, too. Don’t we all? But I’ll tell you –” She looks back out over the sea. The wind whips at her long hair, and tugs perilously on the brim of her cap. “What I’m really looking forward to, more than Petrograd even, is seeing Anatevka again.”
“If you don’t hold onto that cap,” says Shprintze, “you’ll lose it.”
“Oh?” says the fiddler. She laughs and plunks a hand down on top of her head. “Can’t have that. This hat’s been with me a long time.”
Shprintze wants to ask if it’s really the same one she used to wear in Anatevka, or if she’s worked through a series of identically raggedy old caps, one after another after another, wearing them out and discarding and replacing without ever changing the overall effect. Instead, she says, “If you’re going to Anatevka, I guess we’re parting ways after this ship.”
The fiddler turns halfway round, still gripping her hat, and cocks an eyebrow at Shprintze. “You’re not at all curious what it’s like now? Don’t want to see your old house? Your father’s old milk cow, she’s maybe still alive, keynehore?”
Shprintze snorts. “I didn’t like that cow so well she’d pull me halfway across a continent. No, there’s nothing for me there, why would I go?”
“We lived there a long time,” says the fiddler, and shrugs. “Eventually you have to leave anywhere you’ve lived, I guess. Still, it’s a reason.”
Shprintze didn’t live there so long as all that. She’d been younger than a bar mitzvah boy when the Jews were expelled from Anatevka – but she doesn’t exactly want to remind the fiddler of how young she is really. Not for any particular reason, except that she’s feeling very adult and adventurous at the moment, and having the fiddler talk to her like a child would spoil it. She turns around so her back is leaning against the railing, and folds her arms, and lifts her chin.
“The thing is,” she tells the fiddler, “I think maybe you’ve got the wrong idea why I’m going to Petrograd. Maybe you think I took this job so that I could go back to see the old country? A nostalgia trip? That’s not it. Russia, where the first socialist revolution’s happening – that’s the future now. That’s what I’m interested in. What’s past, I don’t care for a bit.”
The fiddler thinks about this for a moment, and then shrugs again. “Fair enough,” she says, and turns her dreaming dark gaze back out towards the ocean. “I guess I’ll see you in Petrograd.”
“We’ve got four more days on this boat first,” says Shprintze, dryly.
The fiddler blinks, as if she had in fact really forgotten this, and then laughs. “True enough! Then I guess I’ll see you here, too.”
“Say hello to your sister for me, will you?” says the fiddler, at the port in Stockholm. She’s catching the train straight east, through Finland into Russia. Shprintze’s going south, through Denmark, to Krakow. It’s a little bit of a detour, but she’ll still probably get to Petrograd faster than the fiddler; there are trains going all the way from Krakow to Petrograd, relatively direct, so long as her American press pass lets her through the front lines. Nothing goes direct to Anatevka.
“I will,” says Shprintze, a little puzzled. When they meet in Petrograd, surely the fiddler will be able to say hello to Hodl herself. “Do you need her address?”
The fiddler laughs. “I have it.” She waves a hand and sets off towards the train station, whistling a tune in a minor key as she goes. It rings oddly familiar in Shprintze’s ears, something she should recognize, like a lullaby her parents used to sing while swinging them around as kids.
She’d never told the fiddler why she was going through Krakow. They don’t talk about Khave outside the family – even after all this time, almost a decade and a half of regular letters and easing tensions, they just don’t. Nonetheless, she’s suddenly unsure which sister the fiddler had meant.
Something horrible and thick crawls up her throat and pricks at the back of her eyes as the wistful tune fades in her ears. She swallows it back down, grimly. This isn’t what she’s here for.
When Khave sees Shprintze on her doorstep, the first thing she does is start crying – “I really never did think I’d see any of you again! I really and truly never thought it!” – which makes Shprintze profoundly uncomfortable. It’s Tsaytl that Khave’s been writing to all these years; why should Shprintze have to deal with her older sister’s emotions when she doesn’t know how she’s feeling herself?
It doesn’t help that Khave with her round face and uncovered hair looks barely older, at twenty-seven, than she had at fifteen. Looking at her makes Shprintze feel twelve years old again: confused and abandoned and furious at Khave for suddenly, inexplicably deciding to become grown up, even before she decided to disappear.
Still, after this bad beginning, Fyedka returns home, and the presence of this total stranger helps Shprintze remember how to be an adult. After that it becomes almost easy, in a way that Shprintze hadn’t expected. She finds herself in the middle of far-ranging discussions on the writings of H.G. Wells, Jack London, and Alexander Bogdanov, fumbling for Russian vocabulary words she certainly never learned and filling the gaps in with Yiddish, which Khave immediately translates into Russian.
This kind of talk has never made it into Khave’s long tear-stained letters to Tsaytl. Then again, these aren’t the kind of conversations Shprintze could ever imagine having with hardheaded Tsaytl, who trudges her way through Shprintze’s articles in The Masses out of worry and love and then reserves the rest of the magazine for much-needed scrap paper.
Khave doesn’t read anything like The Masses, either – it’s all literature with them, no politics, though Shprintze doesn’t know how anyone who reads these days can really separate the two – but she says she wants to know what Shprintze’s writing. Eventually Shprintze finds that she has somehow promised to translate her most recent work in English into Russian, which God knows how she’ll find the time to do, let alone skill.
Russian, not Yiddish. There’s no Yiddish in Khave’s house. Fyedka doesn’t understand it, and neither do the kids. Shprintze’s not going to protest. Fyedka’s been friendly and welcoming, she doesn’t want to exclude him, and anyway it’s better practice than studying her grammar book by herself on the boat. Still, it’s beyond strange to talk with Khave in Russian all the time. After a day or two, it begins to bother her more and more, a kind of itch in the back of her throat. Almost she begins to wish the fiddler had come with her. It’s not that she’s a little kid who’s homesick! She just wants to hear a voice that sounds like she expects it to sound, is all.
On the third night, when Fyedka’s on his night shift, Khave asks apologetically if Shprintze could watch the kids for a little while she goes to talk to a man who can get them some black market beets – things are safer now in Krakow than they were when the front lines were closer, but the trains are still all messed up, everything’s hard to come by.
Shprintze doesn’t mind. She’s more than used to babysitting Tsaytl’s brood; if all you did was look at them, these kids with Khave’s features printed all over their faces would fit right in. When they ask her for a song, she teaches them the same one she sings for Tsaytl’s kids, the rollicking Bundist anthem:
un mir zenen ale shvester,
oy, oy, ale shvester,
azoy vi Rokhl, Rus un Ester, oy, oy, oy!
They don’t know what the words mean, but that’s all right – the tune is bouncy, and she’s never yet met a kid who didn’t love singing oy, oy, oy. She’s in the middle of explaining who Esther is when she sees Khave standing in the doorway, looking appalled.
“I’m sorry,” says Shprintze, “was I too loud?”
“No –” Khave hesitates, then shakes her head, hurriedly, and comes into the room, kneeling down by Shprintze and the kids. “Dimi, Tasha – you shouldn’t sing this song to anybody else, you got that? Not to the neighbors or anybody. It’s rude to sing to people in languages they don’t know.”
“Aunt Shprintze sang to us in a language we don’t know, though,” says Dimi, already a real wisenheimer at the age of seven.
Khave doesn’t look at Shprintze. “Well, that’s because she didn’t know. She didn’t mean to be rude, it’s just the rules are different in America.”
“Oh, are they?” says Shprintze, sourly. She doesn’t want to fight with Khave just three days after meeting her again, but –
“Yes,” says Khave, firmly. Sadness, Shprintze expected, but in fact Khave sounds almost angry. “Yes, they are.”
On the train leaving Krakow, Shprintze begins composing two more documents. One is another report for Eastman on how working families in Krakow have weathered the war, and what they think about the new Polish puppet state the Germans have established, based on her conversations with Khave and Fyedka and their Russian friends.
The other is a letter to Khave. For too long, Shprintze has just signed her love at the bottom of Tsaytl’s letters and thought no more about it. That’s got to change. She’s meant to be a writer, after all. She ought to be able to talk to her sister in her own words.
The letter’s in Yiddish, of course. Khave might not speak Yiddish in her home, but she’d never write to Tsaytl in any other language. She can very well write to Shprintze that way, too. As for the translation of Shprintze’s articles into Russian – well, she’ll surely get better at Russian once she’s been a little while in Russia. That can wait.
After getting through the Russian border, Shprintze had somewhat naively expected the rest of the trip to be swift and straightforward. In fact, the train to Petrograd takes nearly half again as long as the boat across the Atlantic, with constant stops and slowdowns due to poorly maintained rails or soldiers of indeterminate allegiance demanding to see everyone’s paperwork. Everyone keeps telling her how lucky she is to be on a train that’s moving so quickly. This makes good copy for an article for Eastman, but is nonetheless unnerving to experience.
Shabbes comes in on the third day of the train ride, and Shprintze finds herself adopted by a pair of garrulous bubbes who hear her mumbling prayers under her breath in her seat. When the train stops for an unexplained twelve hours a few days later, they seize the opportunity to tell her the full and extensively detailed story of how they engineered the successful match between the one’s schlemiel son and the other’s schlimazel daughter. The story is, to be fair, quite funny, though their accent is so strongly Litvish that it takes all Shprintze’s efforts to understand them.
The other foreigners on the train are searched by the authorities, belongings confiscated left and right, but Shprintze is ensconced in a protective bubble of Yiddish; there’s nothing of interest about a trio of Jewish peasant women. The soldier who comes to check their papers looks bored and disinterested, and moves quickly down the train. Shprintze laughs at her seat-mate’s joke and loosens her death-grip on the suitcase that holds her typewriter.
In Petrograd, she’s almost sure at first that she has the wrong address – Hodl and Pertshik aren’t there, only a man a little older than her with a bottle and a pair of broken legs. Between Shprintze’s mediocre Russian and the stranger’s slurred city accent, she’s finally able to determine that Pertshik is at a committee meeting and Hodl is waiting on a bread-line. “But don’t worry, little sister,” the stranger adds, earnestly, “sometimes it’s Pertshik who waits in the bread-line and Hodl who goes to committee meetings! We believe in equality of the sexes, here!”
“Thank you,” says Shprintze, and attempts to compose another question. “Ah, when are they back, you’re thinking?”
The man laughs. “Who knows! Either could take all day and all night. We take bets on who gets home first.”
Shprintze’s exhausted from twelve days of train travel and would like nothing better than to keel over onto Hodl and Pertshik’s mattress and sleep for a year. Nonetheless, despite herself, she can’t shake the thought of what Tsaytl would say if she heard that she’d spent her first ten hours in Petrograd alone in Hodl’s apartment with a tipsy man. She grabs her suitcase once more and goes to wait in a cafe across the street, which has boarded-up windows and several bulletholes in the walls, and charges her an absolutely horrific amount for a cup of incredibly weak tea and a piece of bread that tastes like it’s made of mostly hay.
The endless waiting in this cafe for Hodl or Pertshik to show up is, perhaps, the worst part of the trip to date – even worse than the seasickness, or Khave’s tears. She’s just so tired, and everything seems gray and gritty and overwhelming. Perhaps, after all, it was a mistake to have come. With the city in such a state, she can’t be anything but a burden to Hodl and Pertshik. She should have stayed home and written opinion pieces from the sidelines and left coverage of the Revolution to glamorous John Reed and Louise Brooks, who have funding for their own hotel room and their own overpriced black bread.
Then she hears a familiar voice shout in Yiddish from the door of the cafe: “Shprintze! Is that really you?” As Shprintze jumps to her feet, Hodl goes on, laughing: “God in heaven! Look at you, Goliath! You’ve become taller than me!”
To Shprintze’s everlasting horror and embarrassment, this time she’s the one who bursts into tears.
After years of hardship in Siberia, Hodl looks at least a decade older than Khave – older even than Tsaytl – but despite her hollowed-out face and graying hair, her personality takes up as much space as it ever did. She bustles Shprintze and her suitcase back up into the apartment, breezily introduces the two people there (the man with the broken legs, now snoring with his head on a stranger’s shoulder) as “our comrades Josef and Abram” with no further explanation, and immediately begins to pepper her with questions: how is Tsaytl, how are the children, did she see Khave, how were the trains, how were things at the front, and what’s Shprintze going to write back to her fancy New York editor about all of this, anyway?
Shprintze’s still exhausted. A large part of her wishes Hodl would let her go to sleep. Another part of her just wants Hodl to keep talking. Hodl sounds like their mother, and like Tsaytl. She sounds like home.
In any case, they keep talking until past midnight, when Pertshik finally returns to the apartment. He’s even thinner than Hodl, but his eyes are bright. “Hodl, listen, you’ll want the latest on the – hey, is that Shprintze at last?”
“It is,” says Shprintze, vastly relieved to find that she seems to have no inclination to start crying again, and beams at him. “Believe it or not.”
“I did tell Hodl I thought you would probably end up taller than her,” says Pertshik. “Didn’t I, Hodl? And you said it’d never happen! Now, look –” He sits down at the table and begins unlacing his heavy boots. “Probably you’re tired, you’ll want to get to sleep soon, but if you want to stay awake while I tell Hodl about this committee meeting, it maybe wouldn’t be such a bad thing for you. Things are really moving, Shprintze! You got here just in time!” And, barely stopping for breath, he immediately begins a long, animated conversation with Hodl about the claims of women with regards to land redistribution. Shprintze’s already playing catch-up by the time she hauls out her typewriter to make notes.
They stay up talking until nearly dawn. After a certain point, Shprintze doesn’t feel tired at all. It’s been twelve years since she heard Pertshik’s particular quality of firebrand Yiddish, but she’s never forgotten it; in a way it’s always been in the back of her mind. Without those early lessons in Anatevka, she’d never have started attending Bund meetings, never written her first article, or got her job for The Masses.
Listening to Hodl and Pertshik talk, seeing the new Russia through their optimistic eyes, she remembers all over again why she came. For the moment, there’s nowhere she’d rather be than here.
It’s a week after she arrives that she finds the fiddler again.
She’s been down by the docks with Bessie Beatty of the Bulletin, investigating whether the sympathies of the fleet lie more with the Provisional Government or the Bolsheviks. Shprintze had pitched Eastman on the notion that her ability to blend in among the Russian masses would be a leg up when talking with the Petograd proletariat; in fact, she’s learning that her invisibility here is a hindrance as often as it’s a help. The sailors on board the Polar Star aren’t going to give the time of day to another little Jewish girl from the boonies, let alone break the prohibition against allowing women on fleet vessels.
American reporters from New York and San Francisco – well, that’s another story. As long as Shprintze’s with Bessie, she’s an American, not a Russian; an observer, not a participant. That has its ups and its downs, too.
“Forty-eight Bolsheviki on the naval committee!” exclaims Bessie, as they start back towards the Nevsky Prospekt. “That’s bad news for Kerensky and the Provisional Government. It looks worse and worse every day, doesn’t it?”
Shprintze makes a face, shrugs. “I guess that depends on your point of view.”
“Your sister’s fellow is pretty far on the Red side, isn’t he?” asks Bessie, with an academic interest. “When does he think the Bolsheviki will make their move?”
Shprintze is trying to figure out how much it’s a good idea to answer when her attention is caught by the faint sound of strings from a side street.
Even now, Petrograd has a few buskers, but in the week she’s been in the city, she’s heard very little except Russian folk songs and socialist anthems. This music is different. She’s only ever heard one musician play that particular tune, and she’s been hearing it ever since her childhood.
“Excuse me,” she says to Bessie, “would you mind taking a little detour?”
Bessie groans – they’ve walked six miles today already, and it’s five more to get back without detours – but follows her down the side street. They’re not quite in sight of the player when the music stops abruptly. She hears voices, shouting and laughing in Russian: “Play the Marseillaise, why don’t you!” “Play the Internationale!”
Shprintze picks up her pace, almost running towards the commotion despite her weary feet in their worn-out boots. She hears Bessie sigh before following after her.
As Shprintze had already known, it’s indeed the fiddler – the fiddler without her fiddle, holding her hands up in a conciliatory gesture. “Please,” she’s saying, in Yiddish. “Please, give it back, you’ll break it –”
The three men surrounding her laugh all the harder. The one in the Red Guard uniform takes the fiddle and begins to pluck at the strings. “Why don’t you sing for us in Russian?” he suggests, mocking. “Sing us a good worker’s song!”
Shprintze feels sick to her stomach. She knows this kind of scene well; it’s been a long time since she’s heard it play out like this, in Russian, but she hasn’t forgotten it.
It’s not supposed to be like this here, in the new Russia that Hodl and Pertshik and their friends have been so excited about building. This wasn’t the Russia she wanted to come back to. But here she is, and here the fiddler is, and what is she going to do – walk away? It’s too late for that. Without Shprintze, the fiddler wouldn’t be here to begin with.
“Let her play in Yiddish!” she calls out. Her Russian’s improved after a week of immersion with Khave and her family, and another week on Petrograd beat, but there’s no denying the Yiddish accent. “Comrade Lenin doesn’t mind it, does he?”
The Red Guard swings round to face her. “And what do you know of Comrade Lenin, little Yid?”
“She knows a fair amount,” says Bessie, next to her, and holds up her camera. “She’s a reporter, like me.” She smiles, a dazzling white-toothed American smile. “Want to take a picture for the San Francisco Bulletin?”
It’s only three o’clock in the afternoon. The men are in a good mood – not yet angry, not yet drunk. They were happy to play cat-and-mouse with a lone Jewish fiddler, but they’re just as happy to take a picture for the San Francisco Bulletin, and have a pretty American seriously write down their thoughts in her little notebook as if they’re really important.
Which they are, of course. Everyone’s thoughts are important. If these men are prejudiced, if these men are cruel, it’s a result of the cruelty that’s been inflicted on them. Once the class struggle has been won, really won – when this strange transitional period is over, and peace is declared at last, and every worker has bread and land – people like this won’t need to direct their frustrations towards those they see as below them. Contentment will spread as naturally as hatred did before.
These men are her brothers, too. They just don’t know it yet. Shprintze reminds herself of all of this, and tries very hard not to hate them as she goes over to the fiddler – tries not to hate the fiddler, either, for reminding her just how far away they are, still, from the future that’s supposed to be coming.
“Are you all right?”
“I am,” says the fiddler, “thanks.” She looks just the same as when Shprintze left her in Stockholm, grandfather’s coat and raggedy hat and all. Her mud-colored hair falls loose over her shoulders. She looks up at Shprintze and says, “Look at you, a heroine!”
Shprintze’s cheeks warm. “It’s Bessie who was the heroine,” she answers – and doesn’t that sting, to know how badly this all might have gone, without Bessie and her camera and her American accent! “Don’t give me credit I haven’t earned.”
She glances back at Bessie to see how she’s getting on. The men are heading off now in the opposite direction, with a smile and a wave. Bessie is busy putting away her camera. The departing Red Guard is still holding the fiddle.
Shprintze grits her teeth and runs after him. “Comrade!” she shouts; tries to remember the word for ‘fiddle’ in Russian, and can’t. “The – you know, the instrument!”
The Red Guard halts. He turns to her, his brow furrowing. Shprintze braces for the worst.
Then he shrugs, and hands her the fiddle, and turns round again to join his companions.
Shprintze stands, shaking and holding the fiddle in her hand, as Bessie comes up to join her. “Well!” she remarks. “Wasn’t that bracing!”
Shprintze swallows and tries to find the same tone, the reporter tone, wry and cosmopolitan and unfazed by anything. “Wasn’t it just! Lucky for me you were here.”
Bessie shrugs off the thanks. “Well, I’ve been here a couple months longer than you, is all. You learn how to handle this kind of thing. Still, I normally wouldn’t run straight towards a ruckus like that.”
Shprintze swings round to face Bessie. “Look, Bessie… this is an old neighbor of of mine, from my hometown. I’d like to take a little while to catch up. Will you be all right heading back to your hotel alone? I know it’s a long way.”
Bessie checks the sky to see how low the sun is before answering – the streets are getting less and less safe after dark, even for an American – then nods. “You’ll let me know if you hear anything from your sister and her fellow, about what’s coming next?” she asks, and grins. “I won’t scoop you, promise.”
Shprintze snorts. They both know that it will take months at this point for any of their full reports to reach their respective editors; whatever has happened will long since be over by then. “Soon as I can,” she promises. As Bessie heads off, Shprintze turns in the opposite direction and brings the fiddle back to the fiddler.
The fiddler immediately turns it over to check it for damage. Shprintze watches her long string-calloused fingers running over the smooth brown wood, sliding over every inch of the instrument, and holds her breath. Finally, the fiddler lifts her head again and smiles at Shprintze. “No harm done.”
Shprintze exhales. “I’m glad.” She hesitates for a moment before asking, “How did you find Anatevka?”
The fiddler thinks about this before answering. Her fingers ghost silently up and down the strings of her instrument, her bow hanging loose in her other hand. Finally, she says, “It was changed, of course. I couldn’t have stayed there long; it was hard to walk through all our old houses, and nobody there who would know me except your father’s old milk cow. It’s not a home anymore. Still, I’m glad to have seen it.”
Shprintze can almost see it: the house that had always been too small for the seven of them, and the empty yard, and the pasture with her father’s cow still grazing, long after everything else is gone. She shakes her head briskly, dispelling the image. “And did you climb our old roof before you left,” she asks, “and fiddle like you used to?”
The fiddler opens her eyes wide at that, and then slides Shprintze a grin, sidelong and full of mischief. That grin would have set thirteen-year-old Shprintze absolutely topsy-turvy; twenty-year-old Shprintze is not completely immune to it, either. “Of course I did,” she answers. “It’s tradition.”
Everything is moving very fast, there’s no question about that. Rumors are flying around that the Bolsheviks are going to make their move on Sunday.
“Don’t set your watch by that,” says Pertshik, when asked about it, and shrugs. “But don’t disbelieve it, either.”
That’s at 3 AM on Friday morning, after Pertshik and Hodl have just gotten home from a long and apparently grueling meeting to which Shprintze was not invited. “Tonight, though,” Hodl tells her, “you should go to Smolny Palace, if you can – the all-Russian Soviet is starting to congregate, the delegates arriving from all over, there are conversations happening you’ll want to see.”
“Tonight?” Shprintze can’t cover her surprise as she looks at Hodl. “But tonight is Shabbes?”
Hodl and Pertshik glance at each other, and Shprintze immediately feels like a fool – or, worse than a fool, a child. “Never mind,” she says, hastily, “I know, too much is happening.”
There have been dozens of weeks in her life when she cursed the need to go home for Shabbes dinner. If it weren’t for the thought of the disappointment in her mother’s face, she might have stayed and kept flirting with that girl at the anarchist rally; she could have beaten the Sun to that scoop on the suffragettes if she didn’t know what Tsaytl would say if she wasn’t home by the time the sun set Friday night.
But that’s at home, where she’s the forward-looker in her family, the radical. It’s different here. If she’s thought about skipping Shabbes a hundred times, it shouldn’t surprise her that Hodl and Pertshik are already well ahead. What they’re doing is too important to be held back by anything as irrelevant as tradition.
All the same, as she trudges through the darkening streets towards Smolny that afternoon, the memory keeps rising, unwanted: all her sisters, unmarried, sitting round the Shabbes table – Tsaytl, Hodl, Khave, Shprintze, Bielke – and her father blessing them one by one, a hand on each of their heads.
Sore, Rivke, Rukhl un Leye,
bentsht di kinder leoylem-voed,
Gotenyu mayn Goyt,
un hit zey fun der fremd un shmad …
It takes her a few moments to realize that her parents’ Sabbath prayer isn’t just in her memory: the music is external, played on familiar strings. Shprintze turns, and sees the fiddler following her.
“Where did you come from?” she demands.
The fiddler lowers her instrument from her chin. “I’m staying near here. I happened to be passing when I saw you.”
Somehow, the fiddler always just seems to be around, these days – but what does it matter? Shprintze’s in no mood for games. “I’m headed to Smolny Palace,” she says, brusquely. “You’re not here for politics, you won’t want to come.”
“No,” agrees the fiddler. “I won’t interfere in your business there. Still, I wondered...”
“What?” demands Shprintze, after the fiddler falls silent.
“Well … I wondered if, before you go about your way, you’d like to light the Shabbes candles with me.”
Her first instinct is to say no. She’d told the fiddler already, on the boat over: she’s here to witness the future. For better or for worse, Shabbes or no Shabbes, that future is beginning here.
She looks out down the street she’d been walking, and at the gray of the sky as the sun sinks lower between the bullet-scarred buildings of Petrograd. She thinks about walking the rest of that road by herself, in the lowering gloom.
If she stops here and goes with the fiddler, it will surely be full night by the time she leaves again.
But the blessings will be said, and the mitzvahs observed, and the candles lit – two more lights, shining against the growing dark.
“All right,” she says, and turns back to the fiddler. “Take me back to your place, then. We’ll greet the Shabbes together.”