Looking for something else, I revisited the entry for Solomon Simon in the Leksikon of Yiddish Writers, this time in English translation (thanks to Joshua Fogel and his blog). Last time I looked at this entry I learned a few details about his life I hadn’t known, and fixed on the information that he also wrote under various pseudonyms. I also made some use of the list of people writing about him, many of which were hard to hunt down and turned out to be fairly prosaic book reviews.
This time, I read about his first forays into writing, which were much earlier than I had realized. Though in his autobiography he sheepishly mentions some early poetry, written in Hebrew and now lost, I had not realized that he was a published writer before he came to America. Because Simon’s wonderful autobiography ends when he leaves Europe, I have no account of how he became a Yiddish writer. I knew that in addition to house painting and wagon driving, he was a Hebrew teacher in his early years in America. I also knew that he went to school at night. I knew that, by the time he served in the Army in 1918, his English was good enough to exchange love letters in English with the woman who later became his wife. But most of his early immigrant experience is a blank to me.
As it happens, the Leksikon entry gives the title to his very first published story after coming to America. In 1915, he published a ‘sketch’ called An Italian Greenhorn, in the daily newspaper Der Tog. Amazingly, this newspaper is available online at Historical Jewish Press. Frankly, trying to search that database drives me a bit crazy, but this time I got lucky. I found the story, published when he was 20 years old. I’m sharing it here, along with my translation.
An Italian Greenhorn (a sketch)
Midday. The sun blazing like fire. Our hero, a young man about 18 or 19 years old, dripping with sweat, walks rapidly on a noisy New York street, carrying a sack over his shoulder. He looks at his torn clothes, his worn out shoes and, looking in a large display window, at his sweaty face, his tousled hair, and his white cap with its blackened visor, and he sees the corners of his mouth twitch strangely, as tears appear in his sharp, gray eyes.
Suddenly, a mocking smile flashes onto his lips. He presses them together and quickens his stride, deep wrinkles appearing on his forehead.
He walks, murmuring to himself, “The first few months…” repeating the words several times without knowing himself what he is saying. As he walks on, the words grow quieter and quieter, until he is silent. Now he walks slower, and another image floats into his mind.
How happy he had been! Such enthusiastic letters he had sent those first three months.
“Nothing much: Only all my dreams have come true!” He recalled in exact detail how he described his life. “Do you remember how I would imagine my life here, when I was home with you? Do you remember my dream of America, that night of the new moon in the spring? My dream was: Work in the daytime, and study at night. I will drop all ‘silks’, all the pretenses of the intelegentsia, and join the ranks like an ordinary soldier. Imagine, calluses on my hands! I will know the life of the proletariat not from Talmudic argument over details and interpretations, but from my own experience. I will be rid of all my doubts and everything will be clear to me. The broad and rock-strewn path of the masses will stretch out before me. And it has all come true!
He smiles. “I will be rid of all my doubts.” How foolish, how childish that was.
He really was happy those first couple of months. He had been idle for so many years, and now he no longer had time. Running back and forth from work to school affected him oddly. It was all foreign to him, strange but seemingly agreeable. He felt his heart was opening to human suffering. And as he did his work, he used to look ironically at his surroundings and think, “If they only knew who I am.”
But he had soon sobered. Life was hard. And he came to understand that it did not revolve around his wishes; that the world did not depend on whether he lived this way or that—need pressed him. And it was going to be that way for a long, long time. The dark and narrow path of a poor worker stretched before him.
He had an urge to cry, but he felt that he could not. He stifled the thought and looked around wildly.
An automobile drove past. Two girls were half sitting, half leaning in the automobile. His wild look landed on them. The opened their eyes wide. And, like that, the automobile disappeared in a cloud of smoke.
His head went blank. With a childish stubbornness, he fixed on the automobile. Bits of thoughts about the girls and the chauffeur got tangled up in his mind until, before he knew it, they braided themselves into a fantasy:
If the automobile had run him over, he would have been left lying with his head askew, pale, with his hands splayed out. The girls would have jumped out, and would have started shrieking with fright. People would have laid him in a wagon. With the tip of her finger one of the sisters (of course the two of them were sisters) would take the sack and set it down next to the chauffeur. They would bring him to the hospital. He imagined the girls looks to the doctor, as though to say: “It is not our fault… the automobile could not stop…” It pleased him, and he smiled contentedly.
His thoughts kept going: “He would come to. The next morning he would be leaning there, washed and soaped, clean and tidy, pale and dressed in white. His gray eyes afire and his black hair combed. The girls would come in, approach him and ask him how he is. He would beg them to forgive his broken English, because he must tell them, he has been in the country for less than six months. Surprised, they would say that given the time, he spoke “alright”. He would ask them to bring him a book: An English classic translated into Hebrew: Cain by Byron, or Hiawatha, by Longfellow… They would wonder how he knew of the best English classics, and he would tell them about Hebrew literature, and about the survival of the Jewish people. In a low voice, he would talk to the, and they would sit leaning next to him and listen and listen… His eyes would take on a dark shine, as they always did when he was excited, his face would be pale, and—they would like him.
He would heal. The would take him to their house, would give him a job in their business. People would say strange things about him. He would look at them as if it was a secret, like a riddle, and their curiosity would grow and grow…
And he imagined another picture: He was sitting in a richly decorated room, in half darkness, the garden visible outside. There was a piano. He sat in a plush chair and told the younger sister about the Land of Israel, about a dark-skinned Jewish woman, about the Russian forest. And the girl listened attentively, her eyes burning like coals…
And without noticing he was off the sidewalk into the middle of the street — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
“The automobile disappeared…”
“Ran over a boy. It looks like he is an Italian greenhorn…”
And the crowd around him grew and grew.
[Trans. by D.R.F.]
Short, and adolescent (someone had to say it) though it may be, it does give a slice of the immigrant experience, of a young man who thinks himself ‘better than all this’, who is ground down by the life of an ordinary worker in the nineteen-teens. Given his later concerns with Jewish identity, I think he is also trying to indicate something else. That in being overwhelmed with work and fantasizing about the gentile girls around him, the hero is in danger of losing anything that marks him as distinctly Jewish. Finally, you see a protagonist who trades on his own exoticism to gain entry to the white world.
Young writers often betray their models in their work. I detect influences of both Avrom Reisen and Y. L. Perets here. When did Simon read them? Whom did he talk to about them? I wish his memoirs included a description of how Yiddish literature first captured him, as the autobiographies of many other writers do.
The story is signed simply “Shloyme” (or Shloime). So now I have concrete evidence of a second pseudonym. Unfortunately, pseudonyms being rampant in Yiddish literature, others also wrote just under first names, and Solomon is a pretty common name. Still, I expect more work that can be clearly attributed to him will turn up.