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Eternal people : a novel /
by David Milofsky.
Niwot : University Press of Colorado, c1998.
x, 311 p. ; 24 cm.
0870815024 (cloth : alk. paper)
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Niwot : University Press of Colorado, c1998.
0870815024 (cloth : alk. paper)
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A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One

The train stopped only briefly in Gays Mills, and almost before Yosl could get his satchel and climb down, it was moving slowly away in a dignified rain of dust and cinders, at once decorous and violent. Even the train seemed in a hurry to leave Wisconsin, cross the Mississippi, and get to the Great Plains.

    For a moment, Yosl stood expectantly, looking at other passengers who had gotten off, the stationmaster, the carts and wagons that were being loaded with grain and dry goods. The dusty air tickled his nose and made his eyes water. Then he understood: there was no one to meet him. He hadn't wired his time of arrival. He wouldn't have known whom to wire. Suddenly, he felt more alone than ever. Before, he had a destination, and the long trip took on its own rhythm, making him feel a part of something, even if it was only a train full of strangers. Now he had arrived, but he had no idea where he was. He picked up his suitcase and followed the hanging dust of a wagon into town.

    Gays Mills spread away from the Kickapoo River, meandering as the river did, its blocks marching in oblong patterns until they petered out into prairie that stretched away in all directions. As many people were walking as riding, and Yosl enjoyed the hot summer sun on his bare head and back. Brick buildings alternated with stone of a pale, sandy color; raw pine tenements marked the boundaries between them. Wood sidewalks ran the length of the three-block Main Street, and now the dirt road became crowded with horses, wagons, and pedestrians, all jostling each other for position.

    The town was no bigger than a large shtetl, but though Yosl saw no Jews, here, unlike Russia, the gentiles did not seem threatening. They moved past him on the sidewalk as if he weren't there, and that made Yosl feel wonderfully, limitlessly free to do as he liked, to be whatever he would become.

    It seemed remarkable that at the age of nineteen, when he should have been at university, he could get on a train in New York and ride a thousand miles across the country to a small town without having anyone demand anything of him. There were no internal passports or identification papers, no suspicious guards or physical examinations, not even unfriendly passengers. Was it possible that this was at last a world free of anti-Semitism? Here, it was possible to think so. Loneliness would be a small price to pay. Yosl shouldered his pack and asked directions of a man sweeping the steps of a dry goods store.

    "New Zion?" the man repeated, querulous at first, then comprehending. "You must mean the Russians. Just walk outside town five miles. It'll be on your right."

    Yosl smiled and thanked the man. Only in America, he thought, could a Jew be confused with a Russian.

Chapter Two

Beyond the last shanties on the fringe of town, the road hooked sharply to the right and narrowed, becoming little more than a country lane. The river was nearly hidden now by high grass and was, in any case, only a trickle of dirty water. Rising to Yosl's left was a succession of rocky bluffs, but the landscape otherwise did not vary from the sandy hills on the horizon. Everywhere he looked, Yosl saw vast empty fields with only a scrim of trees as a border and the road running through them like a thin dun ribbon. There seemed to be no one else in the world this morning, only himself in the space between the muddy river and the distant hills.

    As he walked, Yosl tried to record his impressions, but the farther he went, the more difficult this became. His shoes were hot and stiff, more suitable to city pavement than a rutted country road. He felt blisters forming beneath his heels, and sweat ran freely down his back. The suit he had been so proud of an hour before now felt like chain mail. The satchel was an anchor threatening to pull his arm from its socket. Before he had walked two miles, his trousers were caked to the knees with dust. Finally, Yosl wrapped a handkerchief around his throat and mouth, hoisted the satchel to his shoulders, took off the hard leather shoes, and tied his suit coat around his waist. Feeling more like an itinerant peasant than an adventurer, he continued to New Zion in relative comfort.

    Several miles farther on, the road ended in a clearing. Facing Yosl was a dense thicket of pine trees on one side and unbroken prairie on the other. Beyond the open space, he saw some shacks, and past them a large, rectangular building, open on one side. A garden flanked the main structure and stretched toward the river. Above it all, a flag waved in the wind, inscribed with the Torah scrolls. On it was written "Am Olam." Eternal People, Yosl thought. Next to the scrolls were a crudely drawn plow and anvil.

    Because of the weathered wood, low buildings, and dense underbrush, New Zion was practically invisible from the road. Moreover, it seemed to be deserted. It was only as he moved closer that he began to see signs of life. Chickens picked at the dirt and shook their beaks in the sun as they ate; a thin spiral of smoke issued from one of the houses. On the porch of the large building, which Yosl now saw had a long table and chairs as its only furniture, a girl sat watching him. She appeared from a distance to be little more than a child, but as Yosl came closer, he saw that she was close to his own age. She had blond hair, blue eyes, and an open, attractive face. But her drab brown dress hung off her shoulders and concealed her figure. Yosl was about to attempt English when she addressed him in Yiddish.

    "You must be from Russia."

    Yosl was put off by this. In his weeks in New York, he had grown contemptuous of new arrivals. Now this girl had labeled him immediately. "How did you know?"

    "They all look like you when they come," the girl said. "No one here wears a suit." She walked across the porch to examine Yosl more closely. "I'm Elzbeta, but call me Lizzie. What's your name?"

    "Yosl. I've come to find my uncle, Shmuel Abramovitz."

    The girl's face registered something between anger and disappointment. "Over there," she said dully, and pointed to a small outbuilding.

    Yosl picked up his pack. "I suppose we'll be neighbors," he said. "It's good to meet you."

    But Lizzie seemed to have lost interest. She picked up a bag of seed and started feeding the chickens, her arm describing a long, regular arc in the sunlight as the birds ran first one way then the other after the sheets of grain that were raining down upon them.

    Shmuel's home was little more than a shed and seemed on the verge of collapse. Rather than knock and risk this destruction, Yosl boldly pushed the door open. When he looked in, he could see nothing in the blackness, but as his eyes adjusted, he saw slats of light coming from a shuttered window and then indistinct shapes. Finally, he was able to make out an enormous body dwarfing the narrow pallet upon which it lay. His uncle, snoring loudly in the close, fetid air, was unaware of Yosl's arrival or anything else in the moving world. The room smelled of yeast, and Yosl took shallow breaths to keep from gagging. He dropped his satchel and swept his arm in a circle, searching for a chair. Behind the door, he found a small deal table and a three-legged stool, where he sat to consider his situation.

    He had not expected New Zion to be a nondescript collection of shacks populated by bad-tempered girls and drunks. How could the great editor Abraham Cahan consider this a socialistic outpost worthy of the name? It occurred to him that he could retrace his steps, return to New York, to the newspaper, and forget about New Zion. Who would know or care? He would be embarrassed to return this way, to have to explain to Cahan that his desire to join his uncle had not even survived the trip west. But it was no crime to make mistakes, only to refuse to accept them for what they were and change.

    Shmuel belched, and Yosl felt his gorge rise as he smelled his uncle's stale breath. Gritting his teeth, he moved his stool closer to the bed. The knowledge that this was his only surviving relative brought tears of anger and exhaustion to his eyes. He reached over and touched Shmuel's shoulder.

    "Uncle, it is your nephew. I have come to live with you. Wake up."

    Shmuel grunted and expelled air through his nose. Then one small, black eye opened to examine the intruder. "Who?"

    Yosl stood now. "Uncle. I have come from Russia to see you."

    Shmuel sat up and stretched, his arms seeming to crowd the ceiling. Yosl saw he was wearing a hat with the visor turned around, a leather vest, and a pair of voluminous stained trousers. Now Shmuel put his arms through his suspenders and stood to look at Yosl. He was a big man, larger even than Yosl had imagined from his father's description, over six feet tall and weighing more than two hundred pounds. His face was flushed except where it was covered by a spiky black beard that encircled his jaw. His pendulous stomach was barely circumscribed by his pants, and the small hat looked comic perched on his forehead like a birdcage.


    "I heard you. For God's sake give me peace first thing in the morning." Shmuel's voice was not loud; it had instead a scratchy quality, as if it had been used infrequently.

    "I'm sorry," Yosl said. "I wasn't sure you heard me."

    "I should be deaf in addition to fat and drunk?" He was peering into the corners of the room. Finally, he extracted a pitcher from beneath a ledge. He offered the jug to Yosl. "Here, drink. It's only cider beer, it won't hurt you. The Indians make it."

    The walk from town had made Yosl thirsty. He took the flask and drank deeply, feeling the warm liquid run down his shirt front. Then he gagged, spitting and coughing up everything he had swallowed, feeling the bitter drink in his nostrils.

    Amused, Shmuel patted Yosl on the back. "At least you tried it," he said. "Now tell me, what are you doing out here?"

    Yosl felt his disappointment turn to anger, and once again his eyes filled. He wiped them with his sleeve and blew his nose. "Uncle," he began, his voice a croak. Then he was crying, and though he didn't wish to be seen like this, it was not in his power to stop. He bent over in his chair, his thin body racked with sobs, and finally Shmuel put his arm around him.

    Yosl embraced his uncle, feeling his strong warm body and the rush of his own tears hot on his cheeks. He buried his face in Shmuel's chest, imagining it was his father, that they were all together again, and that nothing had changed, that there had been no pogrom and no one had died. Yosl was grateful for the freedom of America, but it would be worth living a life in bondage to have his parents and sisters alive again. Shmuel held Yosl so tight Yosl thought he would lose consciousness, yet he did not complain, for he knew that in this mute gesture Shmuel was admitting guilt and sorrow, saying what would be impossible in words. Finally, Shmuel released him, and Yosl, shaken, sat on the edge of the small table, his hands still trembling. When Shmuel spoke, it was in a soft, kind voice.

    "It is a hard thing to be alone at your age."

    Yosl nodded. "Yes. I miss my family."

    "It may sound odd," Shmuel said. "But I miss them, too. Twenty years ago it was impossible for me to admit I needed anybody; now that I can, they are all gone."

    "So you know about the pogrom, Uncle?"

    "Cahan, the famous editor, wrote me. He knows everything, even what isn't worth knowing." Shmuel shook his head. "We used to be friends. He said you would be coming and told me what happened. Before that, I read of such things in the Forward , like everyone else, but I never thought there would be trouble in White Russia. Always it was in the south, but we had been safe. Now, no one is safe. I even wonder if we are here."

    Yosl was seeing a new side of his uncle. He had always thought of him as strong and fearless. Never as reflective or doubting himself. But Yosl couldn't imagine any danger in America. Here Jews could not only own land, but the people left them alone and seemed friendly. Not wanting to contradict his uncle, Yosl said, "Mr. Cahan was kind to me. He rescued me from Castle Garden and gave me work when I knew no one in New York. I had no idea America was so big, that I would have so much trouble finding you."

    "So now you are a journalist?" Shmuel said.

    "Hardly that. Widows and orphans would bring me their letters and I would correct their spelling," Yosl said.

    "Your modesty is becoming," Shmuel said. "But you can read and write?"

    "I was a student in Minsk before all this happened. In New York, Mr. Cahan made me study English. It was inevitable that I would learn something."

    "You make light of it, but it's no small thing," Shmuel said. "How long have the Jews been in Russia? Five hundred years. And how many have even bothered to learn the language? It's no different here. A Jew can live his whole life on the East Side and not know enough English to order breakfast. This makes sense?"

    "I suppose many people are too busy working to learn the language or go to school," Yosl said.

    Shmuel grunted, as if he might accept the point. He inhaled deeply and opened and shut his eyes a few times. "And why were you so anxious to find me?"

    Yosl was surprised. "You are my father's brother. Where else would I go?"

    "America is very different from Russia, Yosl," Shmuel said gently. "Your father knew that, God rest his soul."

    "Father. said that when Jews became farmers, the world would starve."

    Shmuel laughed now. "Yes, there is something to that, though we haven't starved yet. But who would have thought there would be ten different ways to plant corn and that our comrades would have to debate each one before getting on with it?"

    Yosl remembered hearing his uncle described as a young rebel, the black sheep in the family who would not be controlled by his grandfather but chose instead to run off to America. He hadn't been prepared for his soft voice and gentle humor. He had expected to admire and fear his uncle; instead, to his surprise, he liked him.

    Shmuel shook his head again and now Yosl saw deep lines in his forehead. "I told your father to leave, I begged him. But I was the younger brother, the luftmensch , what did I know? He said he understood the Russians, that they were animals. Vodka and money were all that mattered to them, and he had plenty of that. When Cahan wrote about the massacre, I felt like going back and fighting myself, even if they would kill me," Shmuel said bitterly. "Then I considered living a better life, even becoming a rabbi as Father wanted. But what good would it do? Would one death have been prevented if I gave up drinking or studied the Torah every day?" He paused, raising his eyebrows, though Yosl had the feeling Shmuel wasn't really talking to him. "Pah, it would have done no good at all," he finished.

    Shmuel was right, but his logic angered Yosl. "Uncle, you are the oldest surviving man in our family and you deserve my respect. But you make it hard. My mother and father lie in shallow graves and you sit here arguing philosophy."

    Shmuel seemed impressed. He took off his hat and ran his fingers through his hair. Then he removed his glasses and polished them with his shirtsleeve. "A regular tiger," he said at last. "And, of course, you are right. I feel guilty, so I explain things to make myself feel better. I apologize." He offered Yosl his hand.

    Yosl turned away. "You owe me no explanations."

    "Yes, yes, I do. Even if there is no good reason for it, I am alive, and your father, a much better man, is dead. And simply because I had the good fortune to leave before the Tsar sent his men north."

    "Why did you leave, Uncle?"

    "Ach, who knows," Shmuel said, running his fingers through his hair. "I remember why I thought I left. I was going to save the world. But even that was only half the truth. I was a communist; sometimes I still am." He stood and squinted out the small window at the garden. The summer foliage pressed flat against the glass, but Yosl could see the corn, high and yellow against the dark green background. Shmuel turned to face Yosl, hands in his pockets. "But I was also tired of living the way we did in Russia. You know what I mean, Yosl. I was sick of hunching my shoulders so I wouldn't look so tall. I was disgusted with myself for trying to disappear whenever a goy looked my way. I was tired of the moronic peasants and petty bureaucrats who could decide my fate on a whim simply because of the accident of my birth. I was sick of it all."

    Yosl wondered whether his father had felt this way. If so, he had never let on; instead, he'd taken pride in outwitting the peasants, letting them think they were getting the upper hand and then succeeding in spite of it all. Still, his great passion in life had been Yosl's education. Even as a small child, Yosl remembered his father's telling him about the great universities in Germany where Jews could study anything they wanted, side by side with the gentiles. What Shmuel said made sense, but looking around the room, Yosl saw little evidence of his high ideals.

    "And here you have found such a paradise, Uncle? In this place with wine bottles on the table and a dirt floor? You haven't even a real bed to sleep on."

    Shmuel seemed amused. "What does all that matter? Am I such a dandy that I need a fresh suit every day? These things aren't important, Yosl. In Russia, I felt like a fish on a line. I was sick of having that hook in my lip. But I will be honest with you. Even that was not the main reason. I was tired of being a Jew. I couldn't stand the stench of the prayer house on winter mornings, the old men in their moth-eaten capotes, the cringing women shuffling off to the mikva each month to wash sex from their bodies." He paused and breathed deeply at the memory. "I hated the Russians, but I hated the Jews, too. I hated myself. I wanted to live a different kind of life. To stretch to my full height, speak as loudly and arrogantly as I pleased, to love many women, gentile women. Everything."

    "And you've done this?"

    "Not all of it. But tell me, my father and grandfather were pious men. They spent their days and nights studying the Gemara and Mishnah and what did it get them? Are they less dead than the others?"

    The question made Yosl uncomfortable, for he had had the same thoughts, especially in New York, where he had seen women without wigs for the first time, women in expensive silk dresses and lipstick. "That is not for me to say, Uncle. I hardly knew my grandfather."

    "Yes, very well," Shmuel said, nodding his head. "But you see, I did, and that is why I left. I don't blame you for being disgusted with the way you find me, Yosl. I congratulate you on your anger. It is good for young men to be mad at their elders--God knows I was. Each generation discovers for itself what a mess the world has become and decides to change everything. I wish you good luck. But I haven't lived my life to inspire you or set an example. That was never my idea."

    Shmuel's humility made Yosl feel presumptuous. In fact, he had no idea what he would do differently than his elders, no plan at all. It was absurd for him to pass judgment on his uncle when he had done nothing in his own life. "I'm sorry, Uncle. I didn't mean to sound so foolish. It's just not what I expected."

    Shmuel patted Yosl on the shoulder. "Of course. I understand. I wrote Cahan about New Zion, but how could he know how things really are? Our life here is no paradise. But we are free, that's the main thing. Anyway, I'm glad 'you've come--for my sake, not yours. As you say, I'm your only surviving relative. Perhaps now that your father is gone, I can stop being his little brother."

    Yosl remembered his father as being fond of Shmuel but also contemptuous. He used to joke that he was the only Jew in Russia "with a poor relative in America." Now Yosl saw that it wouldn't have been easy being the youngest in the family. But all he said was, "I've always wanted to be a farmer."

    Shmuel seemed pleased by this and smiled. But when he spoke, his voice was brisk, even stern. "One thing you must know, however it appears--everyone in New Zion works hard or they must leave. Men, women, children, everyone."

    "I'm not afraid of work, Uncle."

    "Good. Most of the men spend their days in the forest cutting trees and clearing land. The women do the gardening and much of the cooking, though we all take turns in the kitchen. There is no surplus, but we manage to eat enough to stay alive and even sell some cheese. The other thing is that we are Jews, but not as your father was. When I came here, I cut my earlocks and changed my name. Here, I'm called Sam. Sam Abrams. It will take some time for you to adjust, but I'd like you to try to remember this for the future."

    "Who should I be, then?"

    "You are my nephew, so the last name is the same. And in America, they will call you Joseph, or Joe."

    Yosl tried the unfamiliar name on his tongue. It seemed strong and firm after the sibilance of his given name. He thought he liked it. Then he remembered Lizzie. "I met a girl outside who showed me your house. A blond girl. Thin. Is she Jewish?"

    Shmuel seemed to know whom he meant. "Ah," he breathed deeply. "You've met her, then."

    "She spoke to me in Yiddish."

    Shmuel nodded. "Her father is an idiot who calls himself Edward Liberty. He is a Russian, an aristocrat, who was an officer in the army before he found God. Six months ago, he dropped among us and proceeded to take over the camp. If you talk to some of my comrades, they will tell you it is a good thing, that he is the Messiah himself. As you may have guessed, I am of a slightly different opinion. But you'll make up your own mind. Liberty is one person you can't avoid." Shmuel rose and hiked up his pants. "You've come a long way. You're hungry?"

    "I could eat, Uncle."

    "Spoken like a judge. Come with me."

    Shmuel pushed open the door, letting in a brilliant shower of sun. Then he gestured toward the yard. Leaving his pack behind, Joe Abrams entered the bright midday light of New Zion.

Copyright © 1998 University Press of Colorado. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1998-10-05:
Set in 1905 and 1906 on a Wisconsin commune populated by Russian Jews and gentiles fleeing czarist persecution, Milofsky's second novel (after Playing From Memory) draws on the socialist agrarian movement, Am Olam ("Eternal People"), founded by Jewish immigrants who believed that a self-sufficient communal life in the U.S. would protect them from anti-Semitism. But though the group espouses peace and social harmony, all is not well among the Am Olamniks. When trouble begins to brew and political factions form, the novel's levelheaded 19-year-old protagonist, Joseph Abrams (Yosl Abramovitz), is sent by a New York immigrant newspaper, the Forward, to investigate. In Wisconsin, Joseph is reunited with his wisecracking uncle Sam (Shmuel) and falls in love several times over. The crisis of the narrative comes when an itinerant preacher, Jacob Kleinschmidt, threatens Am Olam with his band of anti-Semitic thugs and Joseph finds himself elected as the commune's new leader. Careful research and historical accuracy do much to redeem the sentimentality of the prose and the gratuitous steaminess of the sex. Narrative contrivances and improbable coincidences, however, that detract from the real issues at hand: bigotry, religious fervor gone awry and the Jewish-American experience. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
This item was reviewed in:
Publishers Weekly, October 1998
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Unpaid Annotation
Eternal People tells the story of Joseph Abrams, a Ukrainian Jew who finds his way to America at the end of the nineteenth-century. During a break from his studies in Russia, he returns to his shtetl in the Ukraine to find it is the target of a Cossack raid. The village is destroyed by the Cossack attack and Joseph's family murdered, but he manages to escape and make his way by river and train to Germany.Eventually, Joseph emigrates from Europe to America, where he lands a job at the Jewish Daily Forward under its famous editor Abraham Cahan, who had been a member of the idealistic Am Olam ("eternal people") movement in his youth. Eventually he sends Joseph to Wisconsin as a correspondent to report on the last existing Am Olam commune in Gays Mills. In Wisconsin, Joseph is reunited with his uncle and joins the movement, eventually becoming secretary to the leader of the commune, Edward Liberty.Things begin to heat up for Joseph, however, when he falls in love with Liberty's daughter, andyet he finds himself torn by desire for another woman. At the same time, the commune is threatened by the followers of a travelling missionary named Jacob Kleinschmidt, known as "the Moses of Menomonee", who preaches a message of hate which eventually leads to a showdown with the Jewish idealists that results in a terrible and destructive fire. As the novel boils toward a climax, Joseph is forced to make some difficult choices, choices which nevertheless bring him more fully into his own adulthood.

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