Illus­tra­tion by Jen­ny Kroik, cropped

Join Scott Nadel­son and Paper Brigade​’s edi­tors to kick off the third sea­son of Paper Brigade​’s Short Sto­ry Club on March 12th at 12:30 p.m. ET on Zoom. Reg­is­ter here!

In the cen­sus of 1784, when Slut­sk was still part of the Pol­ish – Lithuan­ian Com­mon­wealth, he appears as Itsko Polak, or Isaac the Pole. By 1811, after the town had been absorbed into the Russ­ian Empire, where Jews were required to pro­vide inher­i­ta­ble sur­names for the pur­pose of tax­a­tion, he shows up as Itsko Edel­man. In Yid­dish, the new name trans­lates as noble­man,” though no one then or lat­er took this mean­ing lit­er­al­ly: his descen­dants, liv­ing hum­ble lives as trades­men, shop­keep­ers, and labor­ers, assumed he’d been so des­ig­nat­ed because of his char­ac­ter, and they tried to live up to the nobil­i­ty of their name­sake by accept­ing their mea­ger cir­cum­stances with dig­ni­ty. They were mod­el cit­i­zens, pay­ing their tax­es in full and with­out com­plaint. They cheered Russ­ian vic­to­ries against Napoleon, the Per­sians, and the Turks, and con­tributed what they could to a fund for return­ing sol­diers. And when Tsar Nicholas I lift­ed the long-stand­ing ban on con­script­ing Jews into mil­i­tary ser­vice, they watched their sons leave to fight and die in the Crimea. About this, too, they com­plained only in pri­vate, hid­ing their anguish from gen­tile neigh­bors and car­ry­ing them­selves with a deco­rum they hoped the noble Itsko Edel­man would have admired.

Whether he would have or not is, of course, a mat­ter of spec­u­la­tion, and as with all spec­u­la­tion, one that can’t be set­tled defin­i­tive­ly. What we can assess instead is the true char­ac­ter of this Itsko Edel­man, par­tic­u­lar­ly when he was still known as Itsko the Pole. Dur­ing the ear­li­er cen­sus, he was just three years old. By the time the edict requir­ing sur­names reached the town, he was twen­ty-three, unmar­ried, and liv­ing in the house­hold of his old­er broth­er Zimel, who worked as a tai­lor. At the time, Slut­sk was famous for its pro­duc­tion of kon­tusz sash­es, made of silk and worn by wealthy landown­ers across the region. But Zimel wasn’t par­tic­u­lar­ly tal­ent­ed, nor was he suc­cess­ful enough to buy silk. Instead he made sim­ple every­day wear for those who couldn’t afford his more skilled com­peti­tors’ mer­chan­dise. He earned just enough to feed his wife and four chil­dren and con­sid­ered Itsko’s pres­ence an unfor­tu­nate bur­den, a view he nev­er refrained from shar­ing with any­one who would listen.

It’s time for him to make his own way,” he would tell his wife and cus­tomers, though in the evenings, when actu­al­ly faced with his younger broth­er, whose blue-gray eyes remind­ed him of their depart­ed moth­er, he could nev­er bring him­self to speak these thoughts aloud. Instead, he would ask if Itsko had had any luck sell­ing his wares — he spent his morn­ings carv­ing small wood­en dolls with a dull knife, and his after­noons car­ry­ing them from house to house — and when his broth­er gave a weary shake of his head, Zimel would feel for him a reluc­tant surge of pity and decide he could con­tin­ue liv­ing with the fam­i­ly for a while longer. You’re young yet,” he’d say, though at twen­ty-eight, Zimel him­self already had numer­ous strands of gray thread­ing his beard. There’s plen­ty of time for you to find your path.”

For his part, Itsko had no inter­est in leav­ing his brother’s house­hold. He was con­tent sleep­ing in the kitchen and spend­ing morn­ings in the mud­dy yard where ema­ci­at­ed chick­ens pecked scat­tered seeds and where he was out of his sister-in-law’s way. There, it’s true, he carved wood­en dolls with the knife his father had giv­en him when he was ten years old and that he remem­bered to sharp­en only when mak­ing trin­kets for his niece and nephews, whom he adored. He had skill with a blade, and a honed one might have led to fin­er cre­ations and increased their val­ue. But his dolls were good enough for the hand­ful of chil­dren whose par­ents gave Itsko a few kopeks — or cop­per grosz left over from the days of the Com­mon­wealth — to get him to leave their doorstep with one few­er in his sack. The weight of what remained he didn’t mind. He was a strong young man, well-built, with thick dark hair and an easy laugh. The pale eyes passed down from his moth­er gave him a light­heart­ed coun­te­nance, along with a hint of author­i­ty, as if he were a mes­sen­ger from the gen­tiles who ruled the land. Even those who didn’t buy any­thing from him enjoyed exchang­ing pleas­antries and gos­sip before he shuf­fled down the street.

But he nev­er vis­it­ed more than a few hous­es on any giv­en day, because after the third or fourth, he felt an irre­sistible pull in a cer­tain direc­tion, and his steps soon led him to the house of Grin­feld, the brew­er. This one was larg­er than most in the Jew­ish quar­ter, two sto­ries high, with a sil­ver mezuzah instead of a wood­en one beside the front door. Itsko, how­ev­er, nev­er went through the front door. Instead, after glanc­ing around to make sure no one was watch­ing, he slipped around to the back, where Grinfeld’s young wife wait­ed, still in her shift, and cov­ered him with caress­es even before drag­ging him inside. There was a tall wood­en fence sur­round­ing the brewer’s yard, which was twice the width of Zimel’s and cov­ered with a fresh lay­er of straw. No one could see them, she had assured him. Any doubts Itsko still har­bored evap­o­rat­ed as soon as he reached the brewer’s soft bed. There he’d spend sev­er­al hours enjoy­ing her body and beer brewed by her hus­band, before return­ing to his brother’s house in time to eat the din­ner his sis­ter-in-law had pre­pared for the family.

It was a bliss­ful exis­tence, one he hoped to con­tin­ue indef­i­nite­ly. But when the tsar’s decree reached Slut­sk, Zimel abrupt­ly, though with tears in his eyes, told his broth­er they’d have to make a change. Tax­es would be deter­mined by how many male rel­a­tives lived in a sin­gle house­hold, and with three sons already, he couldn’t afford to keep Itsko under his care. He’d have to become head of his own house­hold and acquire his own sur­name. Zimel had already appeared before the kahal and received his new name, Shney­der — the Yid­dish term for tai­lor — an obvi­ous choice giv­en his trade. Of course, until he could pur­chase a house of his own, Itsko was wel­come to sleep in the wood­shed. And in a few months, when it grew too cold in the shed, he could return to sleep­ing in the kitchen, but that didn’t mean he was a part of Zimel’s house­hold; he would have to be his own man from now on, though of course Zimel would always take care of him as best he could, he said, tears now over­flow­ing, because Itsko had their mother’s beau­ti­ful eyes; but he wouldn’t be a Shney­der. In any case, Zimel went on, how could Itsko con­sid­er bear­ing such a name when he’d nev­er picked up a nee­dle and thread in his life?

It was a bliss­ful exis­tence, one he hoped to con­tin­ue indefinitely.

Itsko left the house with his sack of dolls and a head full of con­fu­sion. Did this real­ly change any­thing? In win­ter — or giv­en Zimel’s gen­er­ous nature, per­haps soon­er— he could sleep in his brother’s kitchen once again. He could still eat his brother’s food, carve dolls in his brother’s yard, take plea­sure with the brewer’s volup­tuous wife. What did a name matter?

Some­how, though, the thought that he could no longer be Itsko ben Yaakov, or sim­ply Itsko the Pole, made him feel bur­dened with a respon­si­bil­i­ty he didn’t under­stand, one far heav­ier than his sack. For a few days he worked hard­er than usu­al, sell­ing and replen­ish­ing his stock of dolls with a vig­or that sur­prised him; this was fol­lowed by a week of despon­den­cy, in which he failed to work at all. The day he was to appear before the kahal, he didn’t both­er to knock on doors. Instead he wan­dered the streets and gazed into shops with­out speak­ing to any­one before mak­ing his way to the brewer’s house.

When he arrived, Grinfeld’s wife embraced him as usu­al, screamed her delight, and thanked him for his atten­tions. But then she told him she should no longer see him, at least for now. She had a child in her bel­ly, she said, and since Grin­feld made love like a timid mouse, Itsko was like­ly the father, so it was best if he stopped vis­it­ing in case the child looked too much like him and some­one should suspect.

She would miss him ter­ri­bly, she said, his gen­tle touch and the force­ful thrust of his mem­ber — which she held now, light­ly, in its shriv­eled state — but it was time for her to grow up and become a moth­er, and set­ting aside her own needs and desires, she went on, run­ning a fin­ger along the ridge of his cir­cum­ci­sion scar, was a small sac­ri­fice to make for the sake of her child. And real­ly, Itsko was just a sil­ly boy with noth­ing to speak for him but his youth and exu­ber­ance, she added, as his mem­ber grew again beneath her hand; he had no real pro­fes­sion, cer­tain­ly not one pres­ti­gious enough to grant him a wor­thy sur­name, and what good could come of spend­ing after­noons with him when she had a wealthy hus­band who pro­vid­ed her with a house and fine­ly made clothes, who would care for the child whether it resem­bled him or not, who would ensure they both lived a life of com­fort and secu­ri­ty, if also of dull­ness and mild dis­sat­is­fac­tion, so per­haps, she whis­pered, climb­ing atop him, one could fit just a bit more plea­sure into a final after­noon of farewells. As he left, she urged him to find a voca­tion deserv­ing of a name he could car­ry with pride. She also decid­ed they need not be over­ly cau­tious after all and made him promise to return the fol­low­ing day.

But first, Itsko had to present him­self at the squat annex of the Kalte Shul. It was built of rough boards and lit by smoky, flick­er­ing lamps — a con­trast to the syn­a­gogue itself, the grand­est build­ing in town with its vault­ed ceil­ing and arched win­dows that let light stream across the bimah. The gov­ern­ing coun­cil, arranged in a semi­cir­cle on a raised plat­form, was made up of promi­nent lead­ers from the com­mu­ni­ty, among them an assis­tant rab­bi, two lease­hold­ers, a tex­tiles mer­chant, and the brew­er Grinfeld.

Grin­feld was a gaunt, red-beard­ed man of thir­ty with pock­marked cheeks and sunken eyes. How such an ugly man had obtained a young and beau­ti­ful wife — Itsko pic­tured her above him, an abun­dance of soft pale flesh, aston­ished eyes and gap­ing mouth — was no secret: he’d paid her fam­i­ly hand­some­ly. Itsko tried to stir up bit­ter­ness in him­self while look­ing at the unseem­ly face, but the brewer’s eyes, so sad as they gazed back at his, under­mined any attempt at jeal­ousy. If the child was indeed Itsko’s, it would be far more attrac­tive than the father who would raise it. Or if, despite the timid­i­ty and clum­si­ness of the brewer’s love-mak­ing, the child turned out to be his, it would suf­fer for the repul­sive traits he passed along. In either case, it would inher­it the sur­name Grin­feld adopt­ed when he lived in Prus­sia to learn his trade — a dis­tin­guished-sound­ing name, though it was per­haps pre­ten­tious to asso­ciate brew­ing beer with green fields.

From his heavy chair, the assis­tant rab­bi began the pro­ceed­ings by ask­ing Itsko if he was head of a house­hold, to which Itsko answered in the affir­ma­tive, with a twitch in his eye­lid he couldn’t fend off. He tried to pic­ture him­self in a house of his own, with a plump wife boil­ing beef, but the image kept blur­ring when­ev­er he added to it a detail of him­self return­ing from work at a trade for which he had no skill or ambi­tion. The truth is, he had nev­er desired a life like his brother’s or his father’s, one that led to cramped hands, a bent back, and under­fed chil­dren. What he want­ed instead he couldn’t have named, though when he tried to imag­ine it, with a long­ing that occa­sion­al­ly pained him, he saw it tak­ing shape only beneath his knife, since that was the tool he knew best. The tex­tiles mer­chant asked how he made his liv­ing, and he mum­bled some words about carv­ing and dolls. But this only seemed to irri­tate the mer­chant, who said, with impa­tience, We can’t name you for a toy.”

He tried to pic­ture him­self in a house of his own, with a plump wife boil­ing beef, but the image kept blurring.

We can call him Luft­men­sch,” said one of the lease­hold­ers, laugh­ing and look­ing to his com­pan­ions for approval. Since he’s so practical.”

Or Megege,” said the oth­er, offer­ing the Yid­dish word for dawdler. He was stone-faced and spoke with­out inflec­tion, which Itsko found fun­nier than the joke. He couldn’t keep him­self from tit­ter­ing along with the oth­ers, all except the brewer.

Don’t poke fun at the boy just because he’s less for­tu­nate than we are,” said Grin­feld, an uneasy plead­ing note in his voice.

We can call him Schvartz,” the assis­tant rab­bi said. He’s dark enough.”

We’ve got three Schvartzes already,” said the mer­chant, whose impa­tience sud­den­ly dis­si­pat­ed. He reclined in his chair as if it were Passover and he had all the time in the world to make a deci­sion. And they’re all dark­er than this one.”

He’s strong and healthy,” Grin­feld said meek­ly. Let’s give him a name that suits his stature.”

We’re not call­ing him Breyt­man,” said the mer­chant. While he might be broad, a name like that would require some … char­i­ta­ble dona­tion to the shul.” 

Per­haps Lib­hober,” the stouter of the lease­hold­ers said — speak­ing the word for lover — and the slim­mer one laughed a wheez­ing laugh. The mer­chant leered. The assis­tant rab­bi let out a sigh. Grin­feld looked as if he would soon begin weeping.

The brew­er mut­tered, He’s a man of good qual­i­ty. He should be treat­ed with respect.”

Itsko held his uncer­tain smile until it hurt. Did he under­stand what he was hear­ing? Was his secret tru­ly shared by all? Why, then, would the brew­er, know­ing what he’d done, come to his defense?

The stout lease­hold­er whis­pered some­thing Itsko couldn’t hear, and this time no one laughed. The beams of the shul annex seemed to sag over­head. He smelled his sweat and that of the brewer’s wife, which was both sweet­er and more pun­gent. He wished he had a sip of the brewer’s wares to slick his dry throat.

He wouldn’t wrong some­one,” Grin­feld insist­ed, as if try­ing to con­vince both of them, or make it so. Not on purpose.”

The mem­bers of the kahal shift­ed in their seats, but no one object­ed. Words of self-reproach passed through Itsko’s mind, along with promis­es to cease his vis­its to the brewer’s wife, to live up to the qual­i­ty the brew­er believed, or want­ed to believe, he pos­sessed — a qual­i­ty that might be passed to the child the brew­er would raise as his own. But the words stopped before reach­ing his mouth. He stood with his head low­ered, his eyes focused on the ragged seam between two floor­boards. He set his feet a short dis­tance apart, clasped his hands at his waist, and wait­ed. What­ev­er pun­ish­ment he might receive would have to arrive from some­where high­er than the short plat­form on which the com­mit­tee sat. Any­thing he said now would only cause fur­ther injury, he decid­ed — to him­self, if not to the brewer.

In his heart,” Grin­feld whis­pered, with a des­per­a­tion now that made Itsko want to assure him he was speak­ing the truth, he’s noble.”

Fine,” the assis­tant rab­bi said quick­ly, jot­ting down a note in his ledger. We’ll call him Edelman.”

Grin­feld tilt­ed his head back and closed his eyes. The oth­er mem­bers of the kahal made sounds of relief, the mer­chant turn­ing his atten­tion to a loose thread on his sleeve, the lease­hold­ers straight­en­ing their backs as if ready­ing them­selves for a new task. Itsko, not know­ing what he should do next, stood in place, hands gripped against his middle.

Were they mock­ing him still? Or had the brew­er in fact glimpsed some­thing in him that he him­self had nev­er seen?

Through a haze of puz­zle­ment, he could remem­ber a morn­ing sev­er­al months past, when his lit­tle niece Toi­ba, Zimel’s youngest, begged him to carve a new doll. Her eager smile demand­ed some­thing more than his usu­al care­less­ness, and before begin­ning he told her that first he had to sharp­en his knife. The blade then seemed to move of its own accord, dis­cov­er­ing a face hid­ing in the wood, his hand guid­ed by some­thing more urgent even than the girl’s excit­ed cries.

What are you wait­ing for?” the assis­tant rab­bi said, peer­ing at him. Go be noble.”

Illus­tra­tion by Jen­ny Kroik

What are you wait­ing for?” the assis­tant rab­bi said, peer­ing at him. Go be noble.”

With a name like that, gift­ed so unex­pect­ed­ly, what could Itsko Edel­man do but leave the shul and seek out a vir­tu­ous life?

Whether he found such a life or not, the cen­sus doesn’t indi­cate. But from the his­tor­i­cal record, we know that he even­tu­al­ly fathered legit­i­mate chil­dren who car­ried his name for­ward into the world, with the belief that they deserved it, along with their nim­ble fin­gers and dark hair and gray-blue eyes. Those fea­tures found their way into the Grin­feld line as well, and though some of the Grin­felds might have been more apt bear­ers of the Edel­man name than their own, all of them remained mod­est about their place in the world, iden­ti­fy­ing only with the fields that sprout­ed green at winter’s end.

Two gen­er­a­tions lat­er, in any case, a Grin­feld daugh­ter mar­ried an Edel­man son, and the lines recrossed, the qual­i­ties — inher­it­ed or learned — blend­ed togeth­er until the descen­dants were all equal­ly dig­ni­fied and hum­ble, just like the sad brew­er who endured a moment’s agony in hopes of a bet­ter future.

And the future was gen­er­al­ly bet­ter, at least for those of his peo­ple who, not quite a cen­tu­ry lat­er, emi­grat­ed when they had the chance and lived their upstand­ing lives in a land across the sea.

Less so, we’ll acknowl­edge, for the boys sent to their death in the Crimea. And also, of course, for those who chose to stay when their brethren left for Amer­i­ca and still lived in their unas­sum­ing homes when Ein­satz­grup­pen marched into their city in the autumn of 1941, fir­ing thou­sands of bul­lets that erased all mem­o­ry of Edel­mans and Grin­felds and Shney­ders from the nar­row streets of Slutsk.