The time is 1890. Max has been in America for six years. He and his wife, Fanny, are living on the Upper East Side. With his best friend, Zak Silver, he has taken over the family realty business. Zak’s wife, Abby, is Max’s American cousin—born here—while Zak is from a poor family in a village near Pinsk.
The action concerns the first ever American Yom Kippur Ball, an in-your-face idea imported from the radical Jewish community in London’s East End. Besides Max and Fanny and Zak and Abby, the other players are: Fanny’s cousin Emma Goldman; Emma’s lover Alexander Berkman—here called Sasha—who two years later would attempt to assassinate Henry Clay Frick; Johann Most, Emma and Sasha’s mentor in the anarchist movement; and Zipporah Gelb, a garment worker and Lower East Side revolutionist. The chapter from which this is taken is entitled, “Our Fight Against God.”
The year 5650 since the creation of the world began in late September with furious denunciations of the upcoming Yom Kippur ball. The depraved revelers should be ostracized. Rumors were spread that the ball was canceled. The anarchist Pioneers of Liberty countered with a flier: "The orthodox and reform religious swindlers have set afloat a rotten, filthy lie, to the effect that the ball which we have been planning to hold on the great festival of the slaughter of fowl (Yom Kippur) in Clarendon Hall, 114-118 East 13th Street, has been called off." On the day of the ball, however, the owner of Clarendon Hall went back on his agreement. Hundreds of people gathered on East Thirteenth Street to protest and from there to march to the socialists' Fourth Street Labor Lyceum, whose doors were opened for the celebration. We sang the "Marseillaise" and the revolutionary songs of my childhood, the ones my sister Sophie used to lead in the kitchen after dinner. Sympathizers hung out of windows and waved. Some demonstrators yelled out in English, "Join us!" From one townhouse several women yelled back in Yiddish, "We can't! We're working today!" The demonstrators cried, "Good for you!" not knowing the house was a brothel.
The Pioneers distributed free cigarettes, coffee, and sandwiches. Cousin Emma and Zipporah Gelb were among the women in charge of the trays. When the march to the Labor Lyceum began, everyone puffed away on cigarettes, even if they'd never smoked before in their lives. Fanny and Abby were exhilarated, giddy from tobacco and shouting slogans. Zak and I carried signs. His said in Jewish, "Neither God nor master!"; mine in English, "Down with superstition!" Fanny bit into her sandwich. "It's good, Max," she said, "what is it?" I said it was ham and cheese. Fanny turned ashen. After all her years in America, she still kept shy of pork and shellfish and dairy foods mixed with meat. She pushed to the edge of the crowd and sat down on the curb. "I'll be all right," she said, and became violently ill. Abby put an arm around her and said, "I'll take you home." Zak and I gave our signs away. We walked with Fanny and Abby to Union Square and saw them into a hack. "Don't be long, boys," said Abby.
Zak and I caught up with the tail end of the marchers. Behind us trailed small groups of orthodox toughs, flinging pebbles and piping taunts in Yiddish. They closed in without a standoff as we reached the Labor Lyceum. There were perhaps a dozen of us left outside the hall with a gang three times as big at our heels. The doors of the Lyceum broke open and out charged Sasha leading a group of our boys. My size made me a clear target for the ghetto punks. A flying bottle caught me full in the face. I was thrown up against a wall. Zak came bobbing like a porpoise through the brawl and peeled off my attackers from behind, cracking their heads together. Sasha held the high ground on the Lyceum steps. He laid about him like a tree become animate, beating back assault after assault with steady arm blows. Then Fanny's brothers appeared from a side alley, in a flank attack that routed the defenders of God. The girls inside made heroes of us, Emma, Zipporah Gelb, and others. They sponged and bandaged our small wounds. Emma gave Sasha a great hug and kiss. "You, too, Max," she said. I kissed her back. My head ached from the fight. I was confused. For the moment, I thought she was Fanny.
Meanwhile the speakers pounded away at religion. The fiery Johann Most delivered the keynote, dubbed Kol Nidre, the name of the central liturgical prayer on Yom Kippur. He extolled the benefits of fasting for fat capitalists and moneylenders. His diatribe made some people uneasy. Why talk of moneylenders, not bankers? What was he insinuating? Someone said, "Kol Nidre, and he's not even a Jew!" After the speeches, the real ball began. Over a thousand people were packed into the Labor Lyceum, but everywhere I turned I saw Emma kicking up her heels. She whirled by and said, "I'll save a dance for you, Max!" But I grew dizzy and sat on the floor amid the dancers, until Zak helped me up and piloted me out the doors.
At home in our parlor, Fanny and Abby were playing cards and drinking hot cocoa. They jumped up from their chairs at the sight of us both, bandaged and slightly bloody. Zak described the fight. "Heroes," said Abby. "Zak, be a coward next time." Looking me over Fanny asked, "On your shirt, Max, is that blood?" I looked down. I thought maybe a little but had difficulty saying so. I tried to speak Fanny's name but couldn't. Blood gushed from my nose. I blacked out.
The time is the end of March 1911. The players are Max and Julian Pereira, the lawyer for Max’s realty company, a wealthy Sephardic Jew from a family with deep roots in America, no interest in the Lower East Side or radicalism either, except for a wry amusement at the notion of free love.
Max throughout his adult life has had a recurrent yet evolving dream. In it, he skates along the ice of the river Neman in Kovno, and one by one everyone he has known who has died joins a snaking line behind him.
The scene opens on Lower Fifth Avenue. Max and Julian are leaving a stockholders’ meeting of Silver & Kraft Realty. The chapter this passage is taken from is called, “Free Love.”
Our business was done. Julian proposed we walk south to Washington Square, and from there east to Broadway and then down to his firm's offices near City Hall. As we neared the square, fire engines clanged by, some horse-drawn, others motor-driven. Black smoke rose up and dimmed the late afternoon sky. People around us began to run, and we ran with them, past the private homes on the north side of the park, past the arch, through the park itself, until we reached the blazing factory building at the edge of the square where the girls, one after another, were dropping from the uppermost floors to their deaths on the pavement below. The police held back the nearest onlookers. Julian and I both were able to see over the heads of the people in front of us. The fire ladders extended only to the sixth story, and the eighth, ninth, and tenth were in flames. The life nets broke under the weight of the workers falling, some with their skirts ablaze. Word went through the crowd that one of the biggest garmentmakers in the city, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, was on fire. Bodies by the dozens lay sprawled on the sidewalk. On the ninth floor, a man was handing young women through a window. One turned to kiss him, and he followed after her in a lover's leap. Their clothes billowed as they turned in the air. They hit the cement together. The conflagration was put out within fifteen minutes. By then, so the newspapers reported later, there were one hundred forty-six dead.
"I am shattered, shattered," said Julian, and grieved, anguished, in the taxicab all the way to his firm's offices. We sat behind closed doors, amid law books and leather furniture, and drank neat whiskey to calm ourselves. In my perturbed head, I heard the screams of one hundred forty-six women and men burning, suffocating, falling. Julian said the ghastly irony that such a disaster should happen within sight of the homes of America's finest families was almost enough to turn a just man into a revolutionist. "Max," he said, "they may be outrageous, those friends of yours, but they are innocents, I tell you. Their anger at least is righteous, and their Cause pure." He added: "Never will you hear me mock them again," and quoted Oscar Wilde, that where there is sorrow, there is holy ground. We poured out more whiskey and pondered the queerness of life: our comic devotion to its everyday trivia, our blessed ignorance of its impinging tragedies, even at the moment they struck—oblivious at birth, unconscious at the moment of death, blind in between. "The Greeks well understood," said Julian. "The action is offstage. Unhappy the man who blunders beyond the wings." That night on the icy Neman, which was the river Styx frozen over, the heavens opened up. Roundabout the line of the dead falls a silent hail of fiery bodies, pairs of free-lovers hurled down by the hand of history from the upper stories of the burning sky.
Copyright © 1998, 2012 by Peter Glassgold