I finished high school, and because money was tight at home, I set out at once to find work. In the morning paper, I saw that on Canal Street, known for its Jewish clothiers, two “jewelers”—really, they were sellers of watches, gems, and gold plate and silverware— required the assistance of two or three young men. The shops were near each other. I arrived at the first, which was on the third floor of a large building, and discovered that instead of the two or three young men needed, hundreds thronged the steps, an ocean of souls, every one of them eager for work like me, and the door was shut. With jokes and jabs and taunts, this ocean of men pushed toward the door, each thinking to himself that, maybe, when the time came for it to open, he’d be the one hired. Discouraged, I went to the second shop, also several floors up. There too stood a crowd of young men, ranging from small boys in short pants to long-limbed grown men with bristling mustaches.


I knew then I wouldn’t find work that way. It was better to answer job ads that wanted an inquiry in writing. But there was the problem: all the ads that asked you to write said, “Tell us about your work experience.” I wondered how a young man was supposed to get work experience, when no one would hire him until he had experience already. Finally, I came across an ad for a business called Uptown Coats and Suits. They wanted to hear from around 25 people for a job, at eight dollars a week, no experience required. I composed a letter in my best style and a short while later received an invitation to come the next day at seven in the morning. I arrived on time and stood in a long hallway with almost a hundred other men. Each stared at his newspaper, maintaining an angry silence. Every one of them considered his fellow man an enemy and rival. After some time, we were told to come in. We were seated on benches and given questionnaires to fill out: name, residence, education, whether we had been born here, and if not, where we came from, and so on. The sheets were collected and each man, when his name was called, got up and stood at a desk, where a tall stout gentile sat, elegantly dressed. After exchanging some words with the young man standing before him, he jotted a note on his sheet, which the jobseeker took to a second desk, behind which sat a small, bespectacled, mustachioed Jewish secretary, who jotted down something else. He spoke in a loud voice, saying to the young man, “Arrive on Monday at seven!” And to another: “We’ll call you when we need you!” (This was a polite way of saying, “Go to hell!”)


I too was called up, and I stood trembling before the job dispenser. He examined my questionnaire, looked at me, and said, “Do you know accounting?” I said, “I didn’t do bad in it in school.” He made a checkmark on my paper and handed me off to the secretary. The secretary told me, “For the first month, we only pay six dollars a week, and after that, if you do a good enough job, you’ll get the eight dollars mentioned in the ad. If you’re fine with these terms, arrive on Monday at seven.”


So I’d been hired.


I lived in the Bronx and rode the train to work. You descend into an open maw in the earth, into a station crowded with people. The morning and evening hours, with people on their way to work and back, are “rush hour,” so called for those times when the crowding is worst. And such crowding that occurs in the subway is known only to those who’ve experienced it. The  arriving train is already so full there’s no room left, and yet you shove in through one of the three doors on the cars (two at each end, one in the middle), everyone else doing the same. Guards stand by the doors and warn you, “Step lively!” because sometimes there is a gap between the platform and the subway car, and you can trip and plunge your leg through it. With a firm hand, the guard packs people in on top of the ones who’ve been shoved in already, and holds them there. He stops the overflow so the doors can close.


Inside the long cars, the seated passengers crowd each other, and the straphangers get jammed together, man and woman, old and young, every race and class intermixed. Here there’s no such thing as distinction. Your ribs and chest are squeezed, and your legs—at first they hurt, then they go stiff. It is a miracle how people uncrumple themselves and resume their former shape when they get off. So what is good about the train? It’s very fast, and the tunnel lights go by in a flying string. The train looms amid its screaming whistle. And in its oncoming rush it emits a clattering sound and moan that New Yorkers who have been exiled to small towns sorely miss. At that time, I had fallen in love with a poem by Tennyson, and I would sync it to the subway train’s loud sound, until I could hear it coming of its own accord from within the noise. I would clutch the hanging strap and sway together with the whole mass of humanity, my ribs cracking in the crush, the body odor overpowering, the smell of bacon, liquor, tobacco, and sweat, and the speeding subway car groaning and humming to me out of its racket—


O Swallow, Swallow, flying, flying South,

Fly to her, and fall upon her gilded eaves,

And tell her, tell her, what I tell to thee.


O tell her, Swallow, thou that knowest each,

That bright and fierce and fickle is the South,

And dark and true and tender is the North…


and so on with further verses, breathing sweetly and like golden sunlight on leaves of grass.

At Uptown Coats and Suits, the new hires filed into one room, where the man who would train them stood. The young men sat in rows at tables on either side of conveyor belts, which brought them empty boxes. Warehouse workers carried stock out to them together with orders. (Besides suits and clothes, the shop also sold carders, brushes, and a whole array of notions through mail order.) The men compared the stock with the orders and checked the invoice amount to make sure they matched. When they packed the items, they glued on a sheet with the address and tied the box with rope. The tying was accomplished with a special type of lashing, forming a kind of loopknot.  In three seconds flat, the trainer demonstrated how this lashing was done. To cut the rope you used a blade attached to a ring worn on your finger. The workers purchased this ring with their own money from the shop, along with a special pencil, an eraser, and a sharpener. After finishing with a box, the worker wrote his table number on it.


I was assigned to a table and began to work. After an hour, I was called up to the supervisor at the end of my row. He asked me if I couldn’t work a little faster, and scolded me that I wasn’t doing my lashing properly. Really, he said, he ought to fire me on the spot, but instead he would try me out on the conveyor belts. When I returned to the table to get my things, I discovered that my blade ring, pencil, and sharpener had up and disappeared. A theft committed by some young man. More than I regretted the loss of my things, I was saddened by this puzzling treatment on the part of my fellow workers.


My job on the conveyor belts was to feed the empty boxes. These were stacked by the wall, one on top of another, according to size. The wide belt got large boxes, the narrow belt small ones. When my stack ran out, I would head to the box storage room upstairs, load up a cart, and bring them down in the elevator. I worked like this until noon: the belts emptying and me feeding them, them emptying and me feeding. Each motorized belt moved down the whole length of the room, looped out and back by the rotor underneath. It seemed to go on forever—forever looping out and back.


The lunch break arrived. New hires weren’t allowed to leave the work yard, lest they carry off with them things belonging to the shop. There was a booth that sold Vienna sausages and assorted sweets. Being a vegetarian, I made a meal of a piece of chocolate since, like everyone else, I didn’t know to fix myself something at home. And I marveled at how these young men, who but a few days ago stood in a hallway in angry competition, now acted like old acquaintances. Only I sat alone. The rest had quickly taken a seat on the ground and begun a game of craps, or “dice”—a form of gambling outlawed by the state. I sat at a distance from them on the loading dock and read a booklet I’d put in my pocket, until the horn blew for us to return.


In the afternoon, while feeding the conveyor belts, some of the rope that was used to lash the boxes got pulled into the mechanism; it went from one end to the other and wrapped several times around the rotors. I began to cut them with a pocket knife to get them uncaught. I was still doing so when the same tall gentile who’d previously marked our papers sauntered in, looking around, as fastidious as could be, and saw my predicament. He stopped the machine that rotated the conveyor belts and helped me free the rotors. To my relief, he went on without a word.


In the evening, when the motion of rotors and conveyor belts had ceased, all the workers were lined up and a guard looked each man up and down as he exited, to see if he had taken any shop property. When he thought someone had, the guard felt the outside of the young suspect’s pockets or asked him to take his hands out and show what was in them. This was done quickly. When it was my turn  to pass the guard, he stopped  the line, and asked, “What’s in your pocket?” “Books,” I said, and almost wept at the insinuation. He didn’t believe me and reached his hand into my pocket and began to pull out copies I had made of poems I liked, some enigmatic anarchist booklets, loose leaves of children’s verse, poems for Helen (of the Bronx, not Troy), a dirty handkerchief. Everyone craned their neck to get a look. Then, the pocket knife also fell out of my pocket. “Stand over here a minute,” he said. He let the rest of the line continue and took me to the shop owner. The owner looked at the knife, told him it wasn’t shop property, and the guard let me go. I hurried to the train.


At home, my mother commented: “Just one day’s work and you’ve already got bags under your eyes.”


Coda: At the end of the month, when the time came to earn eight dollars a week instead of six, I was fired along with everyone else. In the next day’s newspaper, an ad appeared that read: “Needed: 25 workers, at eight dollars a week, no experience required. Write c/o Uptown Coats and Suits, New York.”

סִיַּמְתִּי אֶת בֵּית הַסֵּפֶר הַתִּיכוֹנִי, וּמִפְּנֵי דֹחַק הַפַּרְנָסָה בַּבַּיִת, יָצָאתִי מִיָּד לְבַקֵּשׁ עֲבוֹדָה. בְּעִתּוֹן-הַבֹּקֶר רָאִיתִי כִּי בִּרְחוֹב-קַנַּל, מָקוֹם הַיָּדוּעַ בַּחֲנֻיּוֹת-בְּגָדִים יְהוּדִיּוֹת, דּוֹרְשִׁים שְׁנֵי תַכְשִׁיטָאִים – הַיְנוּ, מוֹכְרֵי שְׁעוֹנִים, אֲבָנִים טוֹבוֹת וּכְלֵי כֶסֶף וְזָהָב – אִישׁ-אִישׁ 2 - 3 נְעָרִים עוֹזְרִים. הַמְּקוֹמוֹת הָיוּ סְמוּכִים זֶה לָזֶה. בָּאתִי אֶל הָאֶחָד, וְהוּא בְּקוֹמָה שְׁלִישִׁית שֶׁל בִּנְיָן גָּדוֹל, וּמָצָאתִי, כִּי תַּחַת שְׁנַיִם-שְׁלשֶׁת הַנְּעָרִים הַדְּרוּשִׁים, צוֹבְאִים עַל הַמַּדְרֵגוֹת מֵאוֹת נְעָרִים, יָם שֶׁל נְפָשׁוֹת צְעִירוֹת, כֻּלָּם כָּמוֹנִי לְהוּטִים אַחַר עֲבוֹדָה, וְהַדֶּלֶת סְגוּרָה. וְיָם-הַנֹּעַר, בִּבְדִיחוֹת וַעֲקִיצוֹת וְלִגְלוּג, נִדְחָק לְהִתְקָרֵב אֶל הַדֶּלֶת, כָּל אֶחָד חוֹשֵׁב בְּלִבּוֹ, אוּלַי יִהְיֶה הוּא הַמִּתְקַבֵּל, כְּשֶׁתָּבוֹא שְׁעַת-הַפְּתִיחָה. נִתְיָאַשְׁתִּי, וְהָלַכְתִּי אֶל הַמָּקוֹם הַשֵּׁנִי, אַף הוּא קוֹמוֹת אֲחָדוֹת לְמַעְלָה; וְגַם שָׁם הֲמוֹנֵי נְעָרִים, מִילָדִים קְטַנִּים קִצְרֵי-מִכְנָסַיִם וְעַד בַּחוּרִים אַרְכָנִים שֶׁשְּׂפָמָם מְבַצְבֵּץ.


אָז יָדַעְתִּי כִּי לֹא עַל דֶּרֶךְ זוֹ תִּמָּצֵא לִי עֲבוֹדָה. יוֹתֵר טוֹב לַעֲנוֹת לְשֶׁכָּאֵלֶּה הַדּוֹרְשִׁים מִכְתָּבִים כְּתוּבִים. וְזוֹ צָרָה: כָּל הַמּוֹדָעוֹת הַדּוֹרְשׁוֹת מִכְתָּבִים אוֹמְרוֹת: “סַפֵּר מַה-נִּסְיוֹנוֹתֶיךָ”. וְהִתְפַּלֵּאתִי: אֵיךְ יִקְנֶה נַעַר נִסָּיוֹן, אִם אֵין אִישׁ מְקַבֵּל אוֹתוֹ לַעֲבוֹדָה עַד שֶׁהוּא בַּעַל נִסָּיוֹן מִכְּבָר? סוֹף-סוֹף נִזְדַּמְּנָה לִי מוֹדָעָה שֶׁל פִירְמָה הַנִּקְרֵאת “בֵּית מַעֲלֵה-הָעִיר לִמְעִילִים וַחֲלִיפוֹת”. וְהִיא דוֹרֶשֶׁת כְּ-25 נַעַר לַעֲבוֹדָה, 8 דוֹלָר לְשָׁבוּעַ, אֵין צֹרֶךְ בְּנִסָּיוֹן, לִכְתּוֹב מִכְתָּבִים. עָרַכְתִּי מִכְתָּב בְּמֵיטַב סִגְנוֹנִי, וּלְאַחַר יָמִים אֲחָדִים קִבַּלְתִּי הַזְמָנָה לָבוֹא לַמָּחֳרָת בְּשָׁעָה 7 בַּבֹּקֶר. בָּאתִי לַמּוֹעֵד, וְעָמַדְתִּי בְּמִסְדְּרוֹן אָרֹךְ עִם קָרוֹב לְמֵאָה נְעָרִים אֲחֵרִים. הַנְּעָרִים הִבִּיטוּ אִישׁ-אִישׁ בְּעִתּוֹנוֹ, וְשָׁתְקוּ שְׁתִיקָה זוֹעֶפֶת. כָּל אֶחָד הִרְגִּישׁ בַּחֲבֵרוֹ אוֹיֵב וּמִתְחָרֶה. לְבַסּוֹף נִתְבַּקַּשְׁנוּ לַעֲלוֹת. הוֹשִׁיבוּנוּ עַל סַפְסָלִים, וְנִתַּן לָנוּ לְמַלֵּא גִלְיוֹנוֹת הַשּׁוֹאֲלִים לִשְׁמֵנוּ, וּמְקוֹם מְגוּרֵינוּ, וְחִנּוּכֵנוּ, אִם יְלִידֵי אַמֶּרִיקָה אָנוּ, וְאִם לֹא, מֵאֵיזוֹ אֶרֶץ בָּאנוּ, וְכַדּוֹמֶה. הַגִּלְיוֹנוֹת נֶאֶסְפוּ, וְכָל נַעַר, בְּהִקָּרֵא שְׁמוֹ, קָם וְעָמַד לִפְנֵי מַכְתֵּבָה אַחַת, אֶצְלָהּ יָשַׁב גּוֹי גָּבוֹהַּ וּבָרִיא, לָבוּשׁ בְּהִדּוּר. אַחֲרֵי חֲלִיפֵי מִלִּים מֻעָטוֹת עִם הַנַּעַר הָעוֹמֵד לְפָנָיו, רָשַׁם הָאִישׁ תָּו בַּגִּלָּיוֹן, וְהַנַּעַר, עָבַר עִם גִּלְיוֹנוֹ אֶל מַכְתֵּבָה שְׁנִיָּה, אֶצְלָהּ יָשַׁב מַזְכִּיר יְהוּדִי קָטָן, בַּעַל שָׂפָם וּמִשׁקָפַיִם, וְאַף הוּא רָשַׁם מַשֶּׁהוּ בַּגִּלָּיוֹן. הוּא דִבֵּר בְּקוֹל רָם, וְאָמַר לְנַעַר זֶה: “בּוֹא בַּיּוֹם הַשֵּׁנִי בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁבַע!” וּלְמִשְׁנֵהוּ: " נִקְרָא לְךָ בְּעֵת הַצֹרֶךְ!" (זוֹ דֶרֶךְ-נִימוּס לוֹמַר: לֵךְ לַעֲזָאזֵל!).


נִקְרֵאתִי גַם אָנִי, וְעָמַדְתִּי בְּפִיק-בִּרְכַּיִם לִפְנֵי מְחַלֵּק הַמִּשְׂרוֹת. הוּא עִיֵּן בְּגִלְיוֹנִי, הִבִּיט עָלַי, וְשָׁאַל: “אַתָּה יוֹדֵעַ חֶשְׁבּוֹן?” אָמַרְתִּי: “צִיּוּנַי לֹא הָיוּ רָעִים בְּבֵית-הַסֵּפֶר”. הוּא רָשַׁם סִימַן-זָוִית עַל כַּרְטִיסִי, וְהֶעֱבִירַנִי אֶל הַמַּזְכִּיר. זֶה אָמַר לִי: “בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן אָנוּ מְשַׁלְּמִים רַק שִׁשָּׁה דוֹלָר לְשָׁבוּעַ, וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן, אִם אַתָּה מִצְטַיֵּן בַּעֲבוֹדָתְךָ, אַתָּה מְקַבֵּל שְׁמוֹנָה כְּמוֹ שֶׁכָּתוּב בַּמּוֹדָעָה. רְצוֹנְךָ בִּתְנָאִים אֵלֶּה, בּוֹא בַּיּוֹם הַשֵּׁנִי בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁבַע”.


נִתְקַבַּלְתִּי, אֵפוֹא.


אֲנִי גַרְתִּי בַּבְּרוֹנְקְס, וְהָיִיתִי צָרִיךְ לִנְסוֹעַ לַעֲבוֹדָה בַּתַּחְתִּית. יוֹרְדִים אֶל פֶּה פָּתוּחַ בָּאֲדָמָה, אֶל תַּחֲנָה גְדוּשָׁה בַּאֲנָשִׁים. שְׁעוֹת הַבֹּקֶר, בְּלֶכֶת אֲנָשִׁים אֶל הָעֲבוֹדָה, וּשְׁעוֹת הָעֶרֶב, בְּשׁוּבָם מִשָּׁם, הֵן “שְׁעוֹת הַבֶּהָלָה”: כֵּן קוֹרְאִים לַזְּמַנִּים שֶׁבָּהֶם הַדֹּחַק גָּדוֹל בְּיוֹתֵר. וּמַהוּ הַדֹּחַק שֶׁבַּתַּחְתִּית, יֵדַע רַק מִי שֶׁנִּתְנַסָּה בּוֹ. רַכֶּבֶת הַבָּאָה הִיא מִכְּבָר מְלֵאָה אֲנָשִׁים עַד אֶפֶס מָקוֹם, אַף עַל פִּי כֵן נִדְחָקִים אֶל תּוֹכָהּ דֶּרֶךְ שְׁלשׁ הַדְּלָתוֹת שֶׁל כָּל קָרוֹן (שְׁתַּיִם מִשְּׁנֵי הַקְּצָווֹת וְאַחַת בְּאֶמְצַע) עוֹד וְעוֹד כָּהֵמָּה. וְשׁוֹמְרִים עוֹמְדִים אֵצֶל הַדְּלָתוֹת, וּמַזְהִירִים “שְׁמוֹר צַעַדְךָ!” כִּי עִתִּים יֵשׁ סֶדֶק בֵּין בָּמַת הַתַּחֲנָה וּבֵין קִיר הַקָּרוֹן, וְאֶפְשָׁר לְאָדָם לְהִכָּשֵׁל וְלִשְׁמוֹט רַגְלוֹ בּוֹ. שׁוֹמֵר זֶה בְּיָדַיִם אַמִּיצוֹת דּוֹחֵק וְכוֹבֵשׁ בִּפְנִים עוֹד אֲנָשִׁים עַל אֵלֶּה שֶׁנִּדְחֲקוּ וְנִכְנְסוּ מֵאֲלֵיהֶם, וְהוּא מוֹחֵק אֶת עֹדֶף-הָאָדָם כְּדֵי שֶׁתּוּכַלְנָה הַדְּלָתוֹת לְהִסָּגֵר.


בְּתוֹךְ הַקְּרוֹנוֹת הָאֲרֻכִּים, הַיּוֹשְׁבִים הֵם צְפוּפִים זֶה לָזֶה, וְהָעוֹמְדִים כְּבוּשִׁים יַחַד, זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, זָקֵן וְצָעִיר, כָּל הַגְּזָעִים וְכָל הַפַּרְנָסוֹת בְּעִרְבּוּבְיָה: אֵין יַחְסָנוּת כָּאן. צְלָעוֹת וְחָזֶה נִמְעָכִים, וְהָרַגְלַיִם – תְּחִלָּה כּוֹאֲבוֹת וְאַחַר נִקְרָשׁוֹת. הַפֶּלֶא הוּא שֶׁבְּנֵי-אָדָם מִתְיַשְּׁרִים וְשָׁבִים לְקַדְמוּתָם אַחֲרֵי צֵאתָם מִלֹּעַ הָאֲדָמָה. וּמָה הַטּוֹב בְּזוֹ הָרַכֶּבֶת? שֶׁהִיא מְהִירָה מְאֹד, וְהַמְּאוֹרוֹת בַּנִקְבָּה חוֹלְפִים עַל פָּנֶיהָ בְּמַחֲרֹזֶת עָפָה. עוֹמֶדֶת הִיא מִתּוֹךְ שְׁרִיקָה צַרְחָנִית. וּבְרוּצָהּ, הִיא מַשְׁמִיעָה קוֹל נִקּוּשׁ וְהֶמְיָה, וְהוּא עִנְיָן לְגַעְגּוּעִים לְאִישׁ נְיוּ-יוֹרְק הַנִּדָּח אֶל עָרֵי-הַשָּׂדֶה. בָּעֵת הַהִיא הִתְאַהַבְתִּי בְּשִׁיר שֶׁל טֶנִיסוֹן, וְהִתְאַמְתִּי אוֹתוֹ אֶל קוֹל-הַהֲמֻלָּה שֶׁל רַכֶּבֶת הַתַּחְתִּית, עַד שֶׁהָיִיתִי שׁוֹמְעוֹ מִתְנַבֵּא מֵאֵלָיו מֵעֶצֶם הָרַעַשׁ. אֲנִי אוֹחֵז בָּרְצוּעָה שֶׁלְּמַעְלָה, וּמִתְנַדְנֵד יַחַד עִם כָּל גּוּשׁ הָאָדָם, צַלְעוֹתַי מִתְבַּקְּעוֹת מִן הַלַּחַץ, מַחְנִיקֵנִי רֵיחַ שׁוּם, בְּשַׂר-חֲזִיר, שֵׁכָר, טַבַּק וְזֵעַת-בְּשָׂרִים, וְהַקָּרוֹן הָרָץ הוֹמֶה וּמְזַמְזֵם לִי מִתּוֹךְ שִׁקְשׁוּקוֹ:

הוֹ סְנוּנִית, סְנוּנִית, הֶעָפָה עָפָה דָרוֹמָה,

עוּפִי אֵלֶיהָ, צִנְחִי אֶל זִיזֵי-חַלּוֹנָהּ הַמָּזְהָבִים,

וְסַפְּרִי, סַפְּרִי לָהּ אֵת אֲשֶׁר אַגִּיד לָךְ.

אִמְרִי לָהּ שֶׁאַתְּ מַכִּירָה אֶת שְׁנֵיהֶם:

כִּי בָהִיר, בּוֹעֵר וְקַל-דַּעַת הוּא הַדָּרוֹם,

וְקוֹדֵר, נֶאֱמָן וְרַךְ הוּא הַצָּפוֹן…

וְעוֹד פְּסוּקִים כָּאֵלֶּה, נוֹשְׁמִים מֹתֶק וּזְהַב-שֶׁמֶשׁ עֲלֵי עֵשֶׂב.


בְּ״בֵית מַעֲלֵה-הָעִיר לִמְעִילִים וַחֲלִיפוֹת״ כִּנְּסוּ אֶת הַנְּעָרִים הַחֲדָשִׁים בְּחֶדֶר אֶחָד, וּבָחוּר מְאֻמָּן הָיָה לָהֶם לְמוֹרֶה: הַנְּעָרִים יוֹשְׁבִים בְּטוּרִים עַל יַד שֻׁלְחָנוֹת מִשְּׁנֵי צִדֵּי רְצוּעוֹת רָצוֹת, הַמַּגִּישׁוֹת לָהֶם קֻפְסָאוֹת רֵיקוֹת. הַמַּחְסְנָאִים מְבִיאִים לָהֶם סְחוֹרָה יַחַד עִם נְיַר-הַזְמָנָה. (חוּץ מֵחֲלִיפוֹת וּבְגָדִים, מָכְרוּ שָׁם, עַל פִּי הַזְמָנוֹת דֹּאַר, גַּם מַסְרְקוֹת, מִבְרָשׁוֹת, וְכָל מִינֵי סִדְקִית.) הַנְּעָרִים מַשְׁוִים אֶת מִינֵי הַסְּחוֹרָה עִם הַכָּתוּב בַּהַזְמָנָה, וְעוֹבְרִים עַל חֶשְׁבּוֹן-הַכֶּסֶף הָרָשׁוּם בָּהּ, לִרְאוֹת שֶׁהוּא נָכוֹן. אָז הֵם אוֹרְזִים אֶת הַסְּחוֹרָה בְּקֻפְסָה, מַדְבִּיקִים לָהּ פִּתְקָה עִם כְּתֹבֶת, וְקוֹשְׁרִים אוֹתָהּ בְּחֶבֶל. קִשּׁוּר הַחֶבֶל מִסְתַּיֵּם בְּכֶפֶת מְיֻחָד בְּמִינוֹ, עָשׂוּי כְּמִין לוּלָאָה. אֵיךְ עוֹשִׂים כֶּפֶת זֶה, לִמֵּד הַבָּחוּר לַנְּעָרִים תּוֹךְ-כְּדֵי-דַבְּרוֹ. הַחֶבֶל נִתָּק עַל יְדֵי טַבַּעַת בַּעֲלַת-לַהַב הָעֲנוּדָה לָאֶצְבַּע. טַבַּעַת זוֹ, קוֹנִים אוֹתָהּ הַנְּעָרִים פֹּה, אֵצֶל הַפִירְמָה, בְּכַסְפָּם שֶׁלָּהֶם, וְכֵן עִפָּרוֹן מְיֻחָד וּמַחַק וְחַדְּדָן. עִם גְּמַר כָּל קֻפְסָה, כּוֹתֵב עָלֶיהָ הַנַּעַר אֶת מִסְפַּר שֻׁלְחָנוֹ.


נִתַּן לִי שֻׁלְחָן, וְנִכְנַסְתִּי לָעֲבוֹדָה. לְאַחַר שָׁעָה נִקְרֵאתִי אֶל הַמְבַקֵּר שֶׁבִּקְצֵה הַטּוּר. הוּא שְׁאֵלַנִי אִם אֵינֶנִּי יָכוֹל לַעֲבוֹד יוֹתֵר מַהֵר, וְגַם כִּהָה בִּי שֶׁאֵין הַכֶּפֶת שֶׁלִּי נַעֲשֶׂה כַּשּׁוּרָה: וּבֶאֱמֶת הָיָה צָרִיךְ לְפַטֵּר אוֹתִי מִיָּד, אֲבָל תַּחַת זֶה יְנַסֵּנִי אֵצֶל הָרְצוּעוֹת. כְּשׁוּבִי אֶל הַשֻּׁלְחָן לָקַחַת אֶת חֲפָצַי, מָצָאתִי כִּי טַבַּעַת הַלַּהַב שֶׁלִּי, וְהָעִפָּרוֹן וְהַחַדְּדָן, נֶעֶלְמוּ וְאֵינָם. נִגְנוֹב נִגְנְבוּ עַל יְדֵי הַנְּעָרִים. וְיוֹתֵר מִשֶּׁחַסְתִּי עַל אִבּוּד הַדְּבָרִים, נִצְטַעַרְתִּי עַל יַחַס מְשֻׁנֶּה זֶה מִצַּד חֲבֵרִים לַעֲבוֹדָה.


עֲבוֹדָתִי בָּרְצוּעוֹת הָיְתָה לְפַטְּמָן בְּקֻפְסָאוֹת רֵיקוֹת. אֵלּוּ הָיוּ צְבוּרוֹת עֲרֵמוֹת-עֲרֵמוֹת אֵצֶל הַכֹּתֶל לְפִי גָדְלָן. לִרְצוּעָה רְחָבָה – קֻפְסָאוֹת רְחָבוֹת, וְלִרְצוּעָה צָרָה – קֻפְסָאוֹת צָרוֹת. כְּשֶׁאָפְסָה עֲרֵמָה אַחַת, הָיִיתִי עוֹלֶה אֶל מַחְסַן-הַקֻּפְסָאוֹת מִלְמַעְלָה, עוֹרֵם מֵהֶן עַל עֶגְלַת-יָד, וּמוֹרִידָן בַּמַּעֲלִית. כֵּן עָבַדְתִּי עַד שְׁעַת-הַצָּהֳרַיִם: הָרְצוּעוֹת מִתְרוֹקְנוֹת וַאֲנִי מְמַלְּאָן, הֵן מִתְרוֹקְנוֹת וַאֲנִי מְמַלְּאָן. כָּל רְצוּעָה בִּפְנֵי עַצְמָהּ נָעָה לְאֹרֶךְ כָּל הַחֶדֶר, וְחוֹזֶרֶת וּבָאָה עַל גַּלְגַּל מִלְּמַטָּה; וְדוֹמֶה כִּי אֵין סוֹף לָהּ וְאֵין סוֹף לְרִיצָתָהּ.


בָּאָה הַפְסָקַת-הַצָּהֳרָיִם. עַל הַנְּעָרִים נֶאֱסַר לָצֵאת מִן הֶחָצֵר, פֶּן יִקְחוּ בִּכְלֵיהֶם מִן הַסְּחוֹרָה הַשַּׁיֶּכֶת לַבָּיִת. וְשָׁם בִּיתָן לִמְכִירַת נַקְנִיקֵי-וִינָה וּמִינֵי מְתִיקָה. אֲנִי, בִּהְיוֹתִי נָזִיר מִבָּשָׂר, הָיְתָה כָּל אֲרוּחָתִי חֲתִיכַת שׁוֹקוֹלָדָה, כִּי כָּמוֹנִי כִּשְׁאָר הַנְּעָרִים לֹא יָדַעְנוּ לְהִצְטַיֵּד מִבָּתֵּינוּ. וְתָמַהְתִּי שֶׁהַנְּעָרִים, אֲשֶׁר אַךְ לִפְנֵי יָמִים אֲחָדִים עָמְדוּ בַּמִּסְדְּרוֹן זְעוּמִים זֶה לָזֶה, נַעֲשׂוּ עַתָּה כְּמַכִּירִים מִכַּמָּה שָׁנִים. רַק אֲנִי נִשְׁאַרְתִּי בָּדָד. מְהֵרָה הִתְיַשְּׁבוּ כֻּלָּם עַל מַרְצֶפֶת הֶחָצֵר, וּפָתְחוּ בְּמִשְׂחַק “קְרֶפּ”, אֵלֶּה קֻבִּיּוֹת-שֵׁן – מִשְׂחַק-מָמוֹן הָאָסוּר עַל פִּי דִינֵי הַמְּדִינָה. יָשַׁבְתִּי לִי בְּרִחוּק מָקוֹם מֵהֶם עַל בָּמָה לְקַבָּלַת-סְחוֹרוֹת שֶׁהָיְתָה שָׁם וְקָרָאתִי בְּחוֹבֶרֶת אֲשֶׁר מָשִׁיתִי מִכִּיסִי, עַד שֶׁשָּׁרְקָה הַחֲצוֹצְרָה לִזְמַן-כְּנִיסָה.


אַחַר הַצָּהֳרַיִם, בְּפַטְּמִי אֶת הָרְצוּעוֹת, נִמְשְׁכוּ חֲבָלִים אֲחָדִים, מֵאֵלֶּה הַקּוֹשְׁרִים אֶת חֲבִילוֹת-הַקֻּפְסָאוֹת, לְתוֹךְ הָרְצוּעוֹת, הָלוֹךְ וְהִמָּשֵׁךְ פְּנִימָה וְהִתְכָּרֵךְ כַּמָה פְּעָמִים עַל הַגַּלְגַּלִּים לְמַטָּה. הִתְחַלְתִּי מְקַצֵּץ בָּהֶם בְּאוֹלָרִי לַהֲסִירָם מֵעַל הַגַּלְגַּלִּים. עוֹד אֲנִי עוֹשֶׂה כָּךְ, וְאוֹתוֹ הַגּוֹי הַגָּבוֹהַּ אֲשֶׁר רָשַׁם אוֹתָנוּ בָּרִאשׁוֹנָה, נִכְנָס כְּשֶׁהוּא צוֹעֵד לְאַט לְאַט, מִסְתַּכֵּל סָבִיב, מַעֲשֵׂה בַּעַל-בַּיִת, וְהוּא מָצָא אוֹתִי בְּקַלְקָלָתִי. הוּא הִפְסִיק לְרֶגַע אֶת הַחַשְׁמַל הַמֵּנִיעַ אֶת הָרְצוּעוֹת, וְעָזַר לִי לְשַׁחְרֵר אֶת הַגַּלְגַּלִּים מִן הַחֲבָלִים. לְרַוְחָתִי הָלַךְ הָלְאָה מִבְּלִי אֱמוֹר מְאוּמָה.


בָּעֶרֶב, כִּפְסוֹק תְּנוּעַת הַגַּלְגַּלִּים וְהָרְצוּעוֹת, הָעָמְדוּ כָּל הַפּוֹעֲלִים בְּשׁוּרָה אַחַת, וְשׁוֹמֵר אֵצֶל דֶּלֶת-הַיְצִיאָה סָקַר כָּל אֶחָד מֵרֹאשׁוֹ עַד רַגְלָיו, לָדַעַת אִם לֹא נִלְקַח מְאוּמָה מֵרְכוּשֹ-הַבָּיִת. יֵשׁ וְהַשּׁוֹמֵר מִשֵּׁש מִבַּחוּץ אֶת כִּיסָיו שֶׁל צָעִיר חָשׁוּד אוֹ בִּקֵּשׁ מִנַּעַר אֶחָד שֶׁיּוֹצִיא יָדָיו מִכִּיסָיו וְיַרְאֶה מַה-בָּהֶן. הַדָּבָר נַעֲשָׂה מַהֵר. כְּשֶׁבָּא תוֹרִי לַעֲבוֹר עַל פְּנֵי הַשּׁוֹמֵר הִפְסִיק אוֹתִי וּמִמֵּילָא גַם אֶת כָּל הַשּׁוּרָה שֶׁמֵּאֲחוֹרַי, וְשָׁאַל: “מַה בְּכִיסֶיךָ?” – “סְפָרִים” אָמַרְתִּי, וְכִמְעַט בָּכִיתִי מֵעֶלְבּוֹן. הוּא לֹא הֶאֱמִין לִי, וְשָׁלַח יָדָיו אֶל תּוֹךְ כִּיסַי, וְהִתְחִיל מוֹצִיא מִשָּׁם הַעְתָּקוֹת מִשִּׁירִים שֶׁנָּשְׂאוּ חֵן לְפָנַי, חוֹבְרוֹת-תַּעֲמוּלָה אַנַּרְכִיסְטִיּוֹת, סֵפֶר-שִׁירִים קָטָן בִּלְתִּי-מְכֹרָךְ, חֲרוּזִים לְהֵילֵינָה (מִבְּרוֹנְקְס וְלֹא מִטְּרוֹיָה), מִטְפַּחַת מְלֻכְלֶכֶת. וְכָל הַנְּעָרִים מוֹתְחִים רָאשֵׁיהֶם לְהַבִּיט. לְבַסּוֹף הִגִּיעַ לָאוֹלָר. “עֲמוֹד רֶגַע הַצִּדָּה”, אָמַר. הוּא נָתַן לִשְׁאָר הַשּׁוּרָה לַעֲבוֹר; וְאוֹתִי לָקַח אֶל רֹאשׁ-הַמַּחְסָן. הַלָּה בָּדַק אֶת הָאוֹלָר וְהֵעִיד בּוֹ שֶׁלֹּא מִסְּחוֹרוֹתֵיהֶם הוּא, וְהַשּׁוֹמֵר נְתָנַנִי לָלֶכֶת. אַצְתִּי אֶל הַתַּחְתִּית.


בַּבַּיִת אָמְרָה אִמָּא: ״רַק יוֹם אֶחָד עָבַדְתָּ, וּכְבָר יֵשׁ סִימָנִים כְּחֻלִּים תַּחַת עֵינֶיךָ.״


אַחֲרִית דָּבָר: כְּבוֹא סוֹף הַחֹדֶשׁ, עֵת לְקַבֵּל אֶת שְׁמוֹנַת הַדּוֹלָרִים לְשָׁבוּעַ תַּחַת הַשִּׁשָּׁה, פִּטְּרוּ אוֹתִי וְאֶת כָּל הַנְּעָרִים שֶׁנִּתְקַבְּלוּ אִתִּי יַחַד. וּבָעִתּוֹן שׁוּב הוֹפִיעָה מוֹדָעָה הָאוֹמֶרֶת: “דְּרוּשִׁים כְּ-25 נַעַר לַעֲבוֹדָה, 8 דוֹלָרִים לְשָׁבוּעַ, לֹא צְרִיכִים נִסָּיוֹן, לַעֲנוֹת בְּמִכְתָּב, בֵּית מַעֲלֶה-הָעִיר לִמְעִילִים וַחֲלִיפוֹת, נְיוּ-יוֹרְק”.

Translator's Note

Abraham Regelson was a great American Hebrew writer. That is to say, he was an anomaly.

Abraham Regelson was a great American Hebrew writer. That is to say, he was an anomaly.

The United States is only now starting to acknowledge its legacy of Spanish letters; writers in languages less pivotal to US history, whether Hebrew, Chinese, or Norwegian, understandably still remain outliers, not yet incorporated into the familiar narratives of national literary history. From the mainstream perspective, Regelson looks like a lonely eccentric, writing in the language of another world. He did not see himself that way, even if he lamented a lack of readers and recognition. Regelson was proud to belong to a cadre of American Hebraists, who, during the early 20th century, believed the US would emerge as a small but respectable outpost of the Republic of Hebrew Letters. Although they were wrong, and many came to recognize that their future lay with the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine, American Hebrew writers did succeed in establishing a vibrant literary community, complete with magazines, newspapers, and presses. It was as part of this community that Regelson developed his idiosyncratic style. The story translated here, “Avodat kapayim” (“Manual Labor”), reflects that idiosyncrasy and the environment that nurtured it.

From the turn of century to the interwar era, diaspora Hebrew writing flourished in the Jewish immigrant world of New York City. Like many of the American Hebraists, Regelson emigrated at a young age from the Russian Empire, where he had begun his study of Hebrew in ḥeder, the traditional Jewish education system. Coming of age in New York, Regelson and his fellow Hebraist greenhorns resisted linguistic assimilation; they kept up and even refined their Hebrew. Theirs was not quite the colloquial language being revived in Palestine, but a literary Hebrew, cultivated by a community of writers. While they spoke Hebrew to each other and their students, they lacked that experience of a total linguistic community which developed in cities like Tel Aviv. There, daily speech and the practicalities of life shaped the language; in the US, this could hardly be the case. Not every American Hebrew writer responded alike to these circumstances. Some strove for simplicity and concision. Yet many more, like Regelson, embraced the literariness of this American Hebrew and created a style that readers have rightly described as “maximalist.”

“Manual Labor,” published as a prelude to a volume of stories aimed at young readers, reflects both Regelson’s Jewish American immigrant background and his maximalist style. The story follows a young man in search of a job, with provocative side glances at the conditions of factory work and New York’s grim train system. It is a poignant read, lightened by the darkly ironic tone, while the style borders on oppressive. For example, the financial distress of the main character’s family is connected, through subtle word repetition, to the experience of subway riders jammed up in rush hour traffic. Regelson’s repetitions in turn connect these subway riders to the masses of jobseekers that the main character encounters. In his description of the monotony of factory work, the same language reappears. Such compactness of linguistic connection is appropriate for a New York that is itself suffocatingly dense.

Yet Regelson’s Hebrew is more than just dense; it is rich and evocative. To describe how the light rushes by in a subway car, he borrows language from the prophet Zechariah. When he writes about packing boxes in a warehouse, his language grows technical and precise. He employs religious phrasing, literary speech, and vulgar expressions with impunity. The critic Alan Mintz aptly characterized Regelson’s style: “It reflects a polymorphous erudition in all the historical levels of Hebrew and a pronounced penchant for the rare and the alternative.” What the city grinds down under its heel, the Hebrew, with its allusions and evocations, uplifts.

This linguistic elevation, as observed by Mintz and other critics, is arguably the central dynamic of Regelson’s writing. In a world that was not a Hebrew world, at least not in America, his language took the dross of existence, the grind to earn one’s daily bread, and turned it to gold. This is what occurs in the magical scene here, where Tennyson’s poem (in Hebrew translation) is heard as if coming from the clamor of the infernal subway train. Like “golden sunlight on a weed,” the awful splendor of New York, for just a moment, “breathes sweetly” on Regelson. It is all he asks for.

Yeshua G.B. Tolle


In the Classroom