1893 Born in Warsaw
He publishes his first short story at 16, catching the eye of L. J. Peretz
He moved about Europe, spending seven years in post Revolutionary Russia, returned to Poland before finally settling in Paris.
The stories in the collection from which “The Gentile Girl” is taken was first published in 1928. After New York City, Poland at that time had the largest Jewish population of any city with a vibrant Yiddish Press and Theatre.
There are twenty stories in the collection, I will talk more about the career of Kaganovski and Yiddish culture in Poland in subsequent posts.
In her very well done introduction Bracha Weingrod tells us that some of his stories have O. Henry style surprise endings. “The Gentile Girl” for sure does. (I will disclose the ending, contrary to my normal practice. How it plays out is a lot of fun and their are nineteen other stories.)
As I read this story I was at once brought to mind an episode on one of my favourite American TV series, Seinfeld. From Season Seven, “Serenity Now” focuses on Elaine’s, a non-Jewish woman, tremendous appeal to three Jewish men. George explains to her that this is known as “The Shiska Appeal”, Jewish men attracted to a woman unlike their mothers. In the program even a Rabbi says he will renounce his faith for her. Kaganowski could have written this script!
As “The Gentile Girl” opens a group of friends are listening to one of the guys talk about this Gentile girl he is seeing. This was outside of cultural norms and for sure his mother would have something to say.
“It first began with a hasty word and a wink. The young people gathered more closely together, and grasped each bit of news as one would relish a good cigarette that someone had brought. “A shikse (gentile girl).” “A real shikse?” “A real shikse.” Among the circle of friends, who gathered almost every evening in the café around the same table, there spread a current of curiosity. One demanded of another, “So where is this shikse? When will we finally see her?” The girls and women in the circle were quick to voice their opinion. Fraulein Ola, the prettiest of the group, reasoned with some regret, “So what if she is a shikse? What is a shikse, a different person? Herein lies the weakness of Jewish men - for a non-Jewish woman they would go through fire! I have been hearing about the shikse for several days and simply don’t understand what causes this excitement. Sounds to me like a very provincial demeaning expression.” Whereupon there continued a long discussion about Jewish and non-Jewish women regarding beauty and honesty. The men agreed that the non-Jewish woman was simpler, more practical and more emotional. This caused a quarrel between the young Leiberman couple, and she angrily moved away from him. “Go, so take yourself off to the shikse.”
More and more she becomes part of the group, then the surprise is sprung. The Leiberman’s are having a big birthday party and have invited some guests not part of the group. The guests want to meet the shiska everybody is talking about.
“Madam Leiberman entered the room with her old friend. Naturally she wanted her to see the shiksl, which was rather difficult because she was encircled by people. “And this is our shiksl!” she said to her friend. “Come and meet her.” The friend opened her eyes wide and covered her mouth quickly, as though she were coughing, although no one could tell whether she was coughing or laughing. Suddenly they all heard her shrill voice, “Since when have you become a shikse, Yadzshe?” It became strangely quiet and tense in the room. In all corners words were whispered and exchanged. The details flew like lightening from corner to corner: that her father was a khosid (pious Jew), that they owned a store selling kosher canvas, linen and tailors’ goods. This friend, who had lived in the same courtyard as the family for years, told of her father who sat in the Sukkah singing zmires (rabbinical tunes). No one came forward to admonish her, but all were angry. Not so much angry as regretful. Accusations were made to Edward, and mostly by the men, warnings of an unclear betrayal, of a deceived illusion. The Jewish sense of equality and love between strangers, between Jews and Gentiles, remained an illusion.”
This story was a lot of fun to read. I look forward to reading the other nineteen stories.
Bracha B. Weingrod was born in Winnipeg, Canada, studied in Boston, Mass, where she received a B.Sc (Psychology) from Northwestern and a M.Ed. from Boston University. She came to live in Israel in 1974. She is an educator and lover of Yiddish and good traditional food. From her early days as a teacher in Yiddish in Winnipeg, she has since 1974 taught at Yellin Teachers College in Jerusalem, Israel. She founded and ran the Israel Dyslexia Association, the Kohl Teachers’ Center in Jerusalem, and has written and lectured extensively on Hebrew/English learning disabilities. She is retired and lives in Jerusalem with her husband Alex.