Jun 21, 2016
The following is an excerpt from an article originally published in Zutot 9 (2012), pages 59-71. This excerpt is reprinted here with permission from the author and from Zutot, as part of In geveb’s publication of the first translation of Joseph Opatoshu’s short story “Lintsheray.” Click here for all of our recent translations, blog posts, and articles exploring how Yiddish American culture confronts the concept of race.
Despite the overwhelming completeness of the machine of violence in Opatoshu’s story, certain characters stand out as voices of protest who, by critiquing the system, puncture the deterministic universe and offer the possibility of ethical redemption. These characters take up a proportionately very small amount of the text, but they are significant because their conversations break the flow of the inevitable progression of Bookert’s pursuit and murder. These characters of exceptional insight are Jews and, more specifically, are Jews born outside America who have not assimilated into white society, maintaining their outsider position.
The first appearance of a Jew in the narrative occurs as the lynch mob is preparing to set out on its chase. Harry, the son of Levi, a Jewish hardware store owner, is among the townspeople engaging in the preparations.
Mr. Levi wandered among the crowd, looking for his twenty-year-old son. He went into the saloon and brought his son out.
“You will not ride with them!”
“Yes I will.”
“And I say no! A Jew shouldn’t get involved.”
“And what if it was my sister?” replied the son in a rage.
“Why do you need to think about ‘what if’? It won’t happen! It won’t happen! But if we permit a drunk like McClure to be the judge, you can be sure that today they will lynch a Negro and tomorrow it will be a Jew!”
“They’ve never lynched a Jew before!”
“But do you know what they are going to do?” The father tapped his forehead with four fingers.
“They’re going to lynch the Negro.”
“And that’s nothing to you? Lynching people is nothing to you? So be quiet, angry man, be quiet and come into the house. Why are you just standing there? Come!” The father grabbed him by his sleeve.
The son thought his father was a greenhorn and followed him angrily. But when his father got to the store, he realized that his son had disappeared. He looked at the empty square which had been so busy a short while ago, and helplessly waved his hand. “American children! This is how a generation grows!””
Initially, in this interaction, Levi’s protests against lynching have to do with the protection of his own people. Thus, Levi’s declaration that “you can be sure that today they will lynch a Negro and tomorrow it will be a Jew,” illustrates both the transposition of his fears of anti-Jewish violence that he brings with him from Eastern Europe onto an American landscape, as well as his recognition of the tenuous position that off-white Jews have in a white-dominated system of oppression—and is probably a direct allusion to the Leo Frank case. However, Levi’s protest moves beyond self-interest for Jews to a plea against lynching in general, whomever the victim may be. Levi stands outside the historical foundations of lynching, but his own historically motivated collective memory is from the viewpoint of the subjugated in an Eastern European system of oppression. From this vantage, he judges lynching and condemns it as morally wrong.
Levi’s son Harry, however, whose very name indicates that he represents the adaptation of American norms, has faded into American whiteness and no longer has the unique insight of the outsider. As Marc Caplan notes in his illuminating reading of “Lintsheray,” Levi’s son’s spoken words, though set in a Yiddish narrative, are peppered with English words transliterated into his Yiddish so as to indicate his level of assimilation. 1 1 Marc Caplan, “Yiddish Exceptionalism: Lynching, Race, and Racism in Opatoshu’s ‘Lintsheray’,” in Joseph Opatoshu: A Yiddish Writer Between Europe and America, ed. S. Koller (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 178. For instance, he later describes the conversation with his father as follows: “Kh’hob haynt gehat an ‘argument’ mit im!” (“I had an ‘argument’ with him today”), using the word “argument” in English in a way that signals his linguistic assimilation. 2 2 Opatoshu, “Lintsheray,” 43. Levi seems to not understand his father’s objections to the lynching, and in describing the conversation in Anglicized terms he reveals that his interpretation of the conversation is at odds with his father’s worldview. This recollection of the “argument” occurs at the scene of Bookert’s burning, when a conversation between Jews again disrupts the momentum of the violence:
“Hello Harry, where is your father?” The cobbler slapped Levi’s son on the shoulder.
“Don’t you know my father? He’s crazy. I had it out with him today!” Harry smiled. “He’s threatening to leave us in Burke and move to New York to be among Jews! He says that they should lynch the whole town, instead of the Negro. What do you think of that? Ha ha ha!”
“What do you mean?” The cobbler tipped his stiff hat and became philosophical, “One has to have a particular kind of heart to burn even a Negro! Only goyim could do it!”
“You’re a greenhorn like my father!” Harry laughed in his face.
The cobbler laid a swollen hand on Harry’s head, bending him down, and looked at him with scorn, saying nothing, then vanished amongst the crowd.
“A greenhorn,” Harry thought, watching as he went away.
Here, the Jews are present at the spectacle of the burning. The older generation Jew retains his uniqueness from the totalizing unity of the violent mob through his identity as a Jew. As a result of this Jewish distinctiveness, he is able to articulate his ethical resistance to the torture—that it is callous and outside the range of acceptable, “Jewish” behavior. Meanwhile, the younger Jew denies the ethics of his elder’s statement, dismissing the ethical outsiderness as a function of the shoemaker’s being a “greenhorn.” In his desire to take part in white society, Harry is blind to the dangers of participating in a group that does not conform to the ethical standards of his own historic community. Lacking the direct experience of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe (presumably twenty-year old Harry is American-born), Harry eschews both the fears and the ethics of his own people.
Harry wants to see himself as American, to throw off the trappings of his father’s time and place. However, Harry is apart from American society because he is Jewish, and this single fact stands between him and his desired home. Harry does not participate in the lynch mob because he is part of it in an inborn, inevitable way. Rather, he joins in because he wants to. He is not corrupt out of historical determinism; he is becoming corrupt out of his own choices and through the rejection of his father’s past as both a victim of anti-Semitism and as a voice of resistance to racially-motivated violence. Harry, unlike other white characters in the story, has a choice, and he makes the ethically unsound one. Once Harry has participated in the lynch mob, however, and witnessed the violence, he has perpetuated the system of oppression, and although we do not encounter him again in Opatoshu’s story, it would seem that this is because he has become a part of the white lynch mob and is now inextricably enmeshed in their oppressive cycle of violence. He becomes a part of the system, and his ambivalence about lynching—his interest in participating in it only because he wants to be a part of the crowd—will become a more insistent desire to continue the tradition of violence as a member of the white race.
Harry’s willing participation in the system of oppression is part of a larger pattern of creating whiteness through subjugation of blackness. In “Lintsheray,” members of a variety of immigrant communities that were becoming classified according to racial boundaries outside of Anglo-Saxon whiteness due to growing nativist sentiments come together to reinvent themselves as a white collective by recognizing and destroying a common Other:
They came in whole families. Short, broad boned Scotts with trimmed beards and without moustaches, which made them look as though they were constantly about to sneeze; bony Englishmen, clean-shaven, with pursed lips; old Germans with Uncle Sam beards on their chins, speaking Plattdeutsch, as if they had just recently immigrated; several Italians, junk peddlers who packed their wives and children into narrow wagons, hung up whatever little bells they had and traveled noisily; and Slavs, who worked packing oranges and came in their native costumes…
People who almost couldn’t talk to each other, who had avoided each other their whole lives, who hated one another, threw away all of their prejudices and didn’t separate themselves into Americans, Germans, Italians, and Slavs anymore. They forgot about the individual, as though it had never existed, and united as one. The white race had come together to settle a score with the black race. 3 3 Ibid., 40.
Thus, we can see that it is not only possible for Harry (and others) to enter into American whiteness but that whiteness itself is constituted only through participation in the subjugation of African Americans. Although Jews are not listed among the European groups who constitute the white mob, Harry’s presence allows the potential for Jews to be part of that amalgamation. The ritual of lynching creates what Victor Turner would term communitas, or the moment of social bonding that is established by the liminal experience of ritual. 4 4 V. Turner, “Liminality and Communitas,” in A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion, ed. M. Lambek (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 358–74. To participate in a lynch mob, then, is to affirm white supremacy and to reify whiteness as a collective identity despite the social and ethnic stratification that exists within it.
In participating in the lynch mob, Harry not only undergoes a performance that constitutes whiteness, he also becomes part of a Christian narrative of martyrdom. As the violence against Bookert comes to a climax, Opatoshu frames his criticism of the practice of mob violence through Christian religious sources. Bookert not only recites passages from Revelations before the crowd, but through his dedication to his faith as a form of resistance to the mob, becomes a Christ-like martyr. In front of the white crosses of the cemetery, Bookert speaks while the crowd grows as “silent as a religious service.” 5 5 Opatoshu, “Lintsheray,” 45. Opatoshu emphasizes the Christianity of the narrative, claiming “the first Christians must have looked like this when they stood at the stake.” 6 6 Ibid. The crowd becomes unified through sacrifice of Bookert as a kind of religious service, and the story ends with an image of the crosses that “stood in the flames of the setting sun, telling of a crucified God who calls out to the weak.” 7 7 Ibid., 51. Opatoshu draws upon the crucifixion narrative in order to strengthen his criticism of the lynching practice as hypocritical to a religion that professes mercy, but in doing so he also demonstrates the lynching practice as something alien to Harry and to the Jewish readers of the text, interpreting and representing it through a Christian religious frame of reference. Harry’s integration in the mob places him within a religious practice and religious story alien to his Jewish background, further emphasizing the extent to which he has become totally integrated into the mob and distant from his father and all that his father represents. The full weight of Harry’s betrayal of his father and of Jewish communal values was made heavier by the Yiddish-speaking readership’s interpretation of the story as relevant to their historical collective consciousness as Jews. As Ethan Goffman writes, “[s]ympathetic portrayals [of African Americans by Jews] (…) are an indirect means of narrating one’s own struggle, of identifying with one’s people.” 8 8 E. Goffman, Imagining Each Other: Blacks and Jews in Contemporary American Literature (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000) 3. Thus, when we read “Lintsheray,” which would have been read by Yiddish audiences both in and out of America and was reprinted in Warsaw in 1923, we read it with the knowledge that racial violence was a subject of intimate importance to the audience, not only because of their role as immigrants finding a place in a society based upon racial differentiation, but also because of their knowledge of the deepening anti-Jewish sentiment and anti-Jewish violence in Eastern Europe at the onset of the First World War. Eric Sundquist describes Opatoshu’s “Lintsheray” as a story that “makes a small town southern lynching resonate with echoes of Russian pogroms.” 9 9 E. Sundquist, Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 27. The historically entrenched, frighteningly inevitable system of race-motivated violence in the story reflects the experiences of Jews in Eastern Europe, strengthening the ethical critique of this American form of violence. Thus, Harry, in joining the lynch mob, takes up arms with the enemies of his father’s people. Harry transforms from victimized Jew to victimizing white American. His participation in the lynch mob places him in the same category as those who perpetuated mob violence against Jews contemporaneously and historically, including those who engaged most recently in the publically discussed and lamented lynching of Leo Frank. In depicting Jewish participation in a lynching, Opatoshu characterizes Jews’ Americanization as a betrayal not only of Jewish ethics and tradition, but even Jewish lives.
The ethical decline precipitated by assimilation in this story creates a deep divide between father and son, casting them as part of different communities and unable to fully speak to and understand one another. This theme of conflict through absolute and irresolvable difference runs throughout Opatoshu’s oeuvre, whether he is writing about conflicts between peasants and Jews in Poland, between women and men, or different racial and ethnic groups. It is a hallmark of Opatoshu’s writing to concentrate on irresolvable conflicts and the perverse and chaotic elements of difference and dissent that lay underneath the seemingly civilized everyday world. 10 10 This is particularly evident in the collection in which “Lintsheray” is found. Each story in Rase sets up a conflict between members of different ethnic and racial groups whose tensions rise to the surface and unleash forces of violence and heartache. In “Lintsheray” Opatoshu uses lynching, a subject of contemporary political and social concern, as a setting in which to contemplate these broader themes of social division and inherent human violence. Of note in “Lintsheray” in particular is the emphasis on intergenerational difference and assimilation not as a cultural gap but as an ethical gap—the newer generation grows not simply away from Jewish cultural, linguistic, or religious practices but toward lawless violence. Through the lynching story Opatoshu depicts a world in which assimilation necessitates loss of morality because the American world that permits and perpetuates lynching is so inherently brutal and immoral.