Now I’m older than they were, and I don’t remember ever having written a word about my two grandfathers. Shame on me. Tiny drops in the Great Transatlantic Migration, poor Yids of the shtetls, both had arrived in Argentina from the Ukraine, escaping the pogroms, the conscription, and other dreadful consequences of the Russian defeat of 1905; yet to me in my early days they were different as different can be. Now I see them similar to each other, almost the same—a greater distance makes things more alike, or perhaps the similarity was hidden from the grandchildren because they took it as naturally belonging to the concept “grandfather” or “abuelo” or “zeide.” For example, “grandfather” was, by definition, an old, retiring man of very few, Yiddish-accented words.
My maternal grandfather was Gregorio Brodesky. That, however, is very unlikely to have been his original given name: was it Gregor, Grigori, or perhaps Gershom, or even Groinem? Immigration authorities in Argentina, just as in the US, were very lose in their translations of strange-sounding names. The same problem with my paternal grandfather, Marcos Nirenberg: was he originally Marcus, Meier, or Mordechai? Incredible as it sounds, I never asked them. Anyway, my sister, my cousins, and I never called them by their names. They were both zeide, but with a slight difference, for us kids highly significant, in the way of pronouncing the word. Zeide, for Marcos, was pronounced with a painful, artificial effort at correctness: tseide; but for Gregorio it was loosely sheishe, which held close echoes of earthly, domestic words like “yuyo” (weed or herb) and “yerba”, the particular Paraguayan herb, Ilex paraguariensis, whose infusion I daily drank and still do. The distaff side, even in the age of automatic looms, has kept the power of bestowing familiarity.
So Gregorio, Sheishe, was the more familiar. He and Rebeca, his wife, lived in our neighborhood, and some of my earliest memories have their three-room apartment for locale. Myself playing on the floor, near or under the dining-room table, with a crystal set of bottle and glasses in a round metal frame, which I think I vaguely associated to a merry-go-round. Later and less vaporously, Sheishe and Bobeh playing cards—rummy canasta—in the smaller room with wicker chairs and a wicker table, while my mother and Bobeh carried on a lively conversation in Yiddish, by me only brokenly deciphered. They would mention a third person, my mother would ask, “vos zugte zi?” (what did she say?), and Bobeh would reply almost invariably, “oy, a peste mayses” (oh, a lot of boring stuff), with the typically dismissive motion of the wrist letting the hand down. Then she would start telling in great detail that apparently not-so-boring stuff. Meanwhile, Sheishe hardly said a word. Had he always been taciturn? He had tried many ways of making a living. January 1919: Argentine Jews suffered their first pogrom, Mother was six years old, and her family lived in the flattest boondock, the Territory of La Pampa, where, forty years before, the uncivilized, semi-naked dwellers had been massacred by a bemedaled, civilized army. Sheishe had a business there, a country store selling assorted stuff, from bulk lentils to axle grease. Mother remembered the mattresses set behind doors and windows during the period that is forgotten today under the name la Semana Trágica, the tragic week. I never asked my grandfathers how did it feel, having escaped the Russian pogroms, to experience yet another in this World turned not-so-New. Did they identify it as something different, or as the same old curse? We’ll never know. But I think I know where my sister and I got the idea for a game we both enjoyed, “los que venden de todo” (the vendors of all sorts of stuff): we laid a step ladder flat on the patio, we placed as many boxes and crates as we could get in the spaces between the rungs, and we drove through the town, pretending that in this box we had a stock of this, and in that one a stock of that. The moving country store. That’s where I got the idiosyncrasies (I don’t dare call it style) of such pieces of writing as the one you have under your nose. Partly from our vendors of all sorts of stuff, and partly from the familiar winter soup simmering in a huge pot. Prose must be like soup: a bit of everything.
I never asked my grandfathers about the tragic week and the pogrom. Perhaps they would have merely shrugged their shoulders, considering that after all, three decades later, things were peaceful enough and that we, their grandchildren, seemed to be doing pretty well in the New Argentina of Perón. But they would have been wrong, for we were still under dark clouds; I mean, the perpetrators of the pogrom were still active among us. There was one Manuel Carlés who, back in 1918, had founded the Liga Patriótica Argentina: its members were gentlemen from the wealthy landed aristocracy—di same shmeteneh, la crème de la crème—and their manifesto was: “Against the indifferent, the abnormal, the envious, and the lazy ones; against the immoral ones, the good-for-nothing agitators, and the empty-headed fanatics. Against all that mob without God, Fatherland, nor Law, the Argentine Patriotic League raises its labarum of Fatherland and Order… Neither the cowards nor the sad belong to our League.” Well, sure, you had to be both brave and of a cheerful disposition to go around in bands, helped by the police, beating old Jews to death and setting fire to their shops. Señor Carlés, like many men of his ilk, was a professor at the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires: he died in 1946, six years before I entered the glorious Colegio at age twelve and came in contact with the scions of patrician houses, many of whom displayed in their lapels the shield of the Acción Católica Argentina, identical, as far as I could see, to the labarum raised by the Liga Patriótica Argentina. But for the moment let’s leave the sad, Aeolian mode.
When Sheishe and Bobeh came visiting, he always had a sweet for us children, most often than not white chocolate, Milkybar. Then he would take his seat, always on our living-room wingback armchair, and sit quietly, never dozing off yet hardly ever saying a word. On one occasion he showed up alone, without his wife. Such unprecedented event left traces in my memory, and a question mark that was removed many years later, when my mother was eighty and I spent hours at her side listening to her licking old wounds: that time Sheishe had come to inform his daughter that her husband—my father—was cuckolding her. “He was sent by my brothers,” Mother added. “They were mighty pissed seeing that I was so stupid, so blind. So Dad told me and I laughed, ‘But Dad, Guillermo is always so busy working, he has no time left for that sort of affairs.’ Dad didn’t insist. Poor Dad. What a damn fool I was!”
Lavrenti Beria and his wife naturally came to mind. Before he was shot in 1953, Beria was accused of having raped scores of women and teenage girls. Slowly driven by a NKVD officer through the streets of Moscow in his armored limousine, he would point out young women to be detained and taken to his mansion where wine and dinner were served. Afterwards, Beria would take the woman into his soundproofed office and rape her: refusal carried arrest, or death, or worse. Much later, in a 1990 interview, Beria’s wife Nina defended him: “Lavrenti was busy working day and night. When did he have time for making love to such a lot of women?” I abstained from mentioning this to Mother. I doubt that she remembered, if she ever knew, who Beria was.
Zeide Marcos came visiting but seldom, and always for Sunday lunch. His wife had died long, long before, his kisses were wet, and my sister and I would quickly retreat to wipe off, discreetly, his spittle from our cheek. He smelled of cheap perfume or yellowing spikenard. Sunday lunch often consisted of pasta and an oil-rich beef stew. Zeide would never have scattered grated cheese on the meat sauce on top of his spaghetti: milk together with meat is treif. But Mother had previously mixed the cheese with the sauce, and seeing that Zeide ate it with relish, she would later mock “those absurd superstitions.” At home we ate pork and all sorts of non-kosher foodstuff, and Mother saw her own mother’s ancient attempts at keeping the Shabbat as no more than ways of tormenting her husband, Sheishe, whom she forbade from lighting a cigarette. I, personally, never saw Bobeh lighting candles, nor Sheishe lighting cigarettes, but, of course, what I saw of their lives was only the end. Zeide Marcos, on the other hand, was more observant, he attended the shul on Calle Paso, and that’s why I see my mother’s bamboozling him into abomination as a rather cruel action. Though one mustn’t think that she did it chiefly out of cruelty, nor out of assimilationist fervor; no, my mother was moved by a lifelong drive to fool all others, to prove herself smarter. She got a kick out of travelling by bus or streetcar without a ticket, and it was in vain that I told her the sad story of the English celebrity C.E.M. Joad, whose book Guide to Philosophy used to grace my shelves. In 1948 Joad was caught travelling on a Waterloo to Exeter train without a ticket. This made front-page headlines in the British newspapers, and destroyed his career in academia and at the BBC. But Mother replied that the story didn’t apply to her. “As you know, I’m no great philosopher,” she said, stroking with one hand an imaginary moustache and an imaginary beard with the other, “I only finished sixth grade. And don’t you worry, my name will not make any headlines.” Travelling without a ticket, she said with a girlish laugh, gave her a thrill. “You have invented un nouveau frisson,” I said, but the joke was lost on Mother, who didn’t understand French.
No, Mother wasn’t really cruel with Zeide. At table she tried her best to involve him in conversation, which was no easy task, but, especially in late spring or early summer, the new potatoes proved to be an excellent bait. Zeide liked potatoes, and he liked talking about them; perhaps he had boyhood memories of the terrible 1892 Russian famine—yet another thing I never asked him about. The strangest thing about those Sunday lunches with Zeide, and the one most strongly impressed on my memory, was the total lack of communication between my father and him. Neither by word or gesture. Never a reminiscence. Father ate while doing a crossword puzzle, paying no heed to the other four people at the table. One would have said that this old witness to his previous life, now sitting there, facing him, was too much: the early death of his mother, his teenage years under the severely thrifty tutelage of don Marcos, the poverty in which they lived, having quit high school at fifteen to apprentice as a barber, all those things—but I’ll never know, nor (I’m pretty sure) did my father, what it was that drove the wedge of filial rancor. On more than one occasion I overheard Mother ask Father: “But what do you really have against him? He’s a good man…” And Father would say nothing. After lunch, my father would go upstairs to lie in bed, and I would sit to play dominoes with Zeide, who was meanwhile drinking his glass of hot tea—one sip, one bite into the sugar cube, Russian style.
When I was in high school, at the glorious Colegio, and, having grown hair in my legs, had to switch to long pants, there was no money at home for a new suit, at which juncture sheishe Gregorio came to the rescue. He took me to Sastrería García, the haberdashers on Avenida de Mayo, where I experienced a side of his personality that was new to me. Once the material had been selected for a bespoke three-piece suit, and as he heard the price, Sheishe exclaimed in feigned astonishment, “That must be a joke.” Then the long tug of war began. “Well, if you settle on a less expensive cloth, we can give you a better price.” “The boy has chosen this one, and this is it.” “If we skip the vest, then it is possible…” “What? No vest? Is the boy going to go around in the winter with no vest and catch a cold?” At the crucial point, Sheishe grabbed my hand and said decisively, “Come, let’s go,” and headed towards the door. Señor García ran after us: “No, no, don’t leave, we’ll come up with something.” Come up they did; it took some time, but García came down by half of the price of the suit. The following two years saw the same farce and the same result; only my measurements changed, for I was, predictably, growing. Then, in 1955, Sheishe died, at his home, of sudden heart failure.
That year brought many other changes. Perón was ousted by a military coup but was allowed to flee, and this, in the long run, proved to be politically destabilizing. In the shorter term, though, the ouster of Perón was a blessing for many young people like me, because from 1956 until 1966 Argentine universities lived their finest hour, led by some of the country’s keenest intellects, who had been kept out by the previous government. At Exactas, as the School of Exact and Natural Sciences was called, you were far less likely to meet students belonging to the Acción Católica Argentina than to the Partido Comunista Argentino, which was at that time trying to recover from the shock of Khrushchev’s secret speech. If you recall that the boss of the PCA was Victorio Codovilla, a trusted Stalin operative who had prepared Trotsky’s assassination, you’ll get some notion of the magnitude of that shock; but the party would soon be boosted by Castro’s takeover in Cuba. I studied chemistry for a year, but, to my chagrin, most questions were answered by the teachers, “Oh, for that you’ll have to wait until you study quantum mechanics.” So I switched to physics, which seemed a more direct road to wisdom. The physicists, however, were unable to explain what tensors are, and would say, “Oh, who cares, we just use them.” In disgust, I ended up in math, were at least you are supposed to know how to define what you’re using. In 1963, when I was about to leave for the USA in search of a doctorate in math, Zeide called to say that he wanted to go shopping with me: he wanted to give me a present, something that would be useful to me during my studies in the US.
In those days Zeide and my father were, amazingly, on speaking terms. Zeide was retiring from his long practice as an itinerant jeweler, what Argentine Jews called a cuentenik (from cuenta = account, plus the Russian-Yiddish suffix nik). He used to take public transportation to visit clients all over the place, and buy and mostly sell watches, rings, and all sorts of trinkets, which were paid in monthly installments. Since Father’s business was, as usual, not going anywhere, he accepted with alacrity Zeide’s offer of transferring his clientele to his elder son. First thing Father did was to have natty cards printed with the single word, “Joyero” (Jeweler), under his name. The next thing was to secure a non-public means of transportation, i.e. a car. I had used the money I earned by teaching math to physics students in Patagonia to buy a Renault Dauphine made in Argentina, which Father drove during most of the day. When I left for the US, Father kept the car and told me he would pay me in installments. Anyway, Zeide explained that he wanted to give me an alarm clock so in case I had early morning classes in New York, I wouldn’t oversleep. I thought it very thoughtful of him; I was rather surprised that he even knew I was supposed to go to classes in New York.
He took me to a shop on Calle Libertad, where most of the Jewish jewelers were located, and we chose an alarm clock of the most classic type, a key wind and two brass bells on top with a little hammer in between. When the salesman told us the price, Zeide said very forcefully, more forcefully than I had ever heard him before, “But Max! For this piece of junk?” Apparently the salesman was known to Zeide, and his name was Max, but he didn’t budge. Zeide was unable to get a discount. I couldn’t help comparing Zeide’s failure to Sheishe’s brilliant tactics at García’s, but, now I think of it, the difference between the two old men becomes much smaller when we reflect that the asking price of the suit was about a hundred times that of the alarm clock.
Father died in March 1969, four months after a car accident that had left him immobile and bed ridden. From the small Renault Dauphine he had moved up to a Rambler Classic, and from that, up to a Rambler Ambassador. At the wheel of this “formidable automobile,” as Father once described it by letter to me, he must have felt like a roving ambassador rather than a cuentenik. He was a fast driver, and one evening, coming back from the town of Lobos on route 205, he could not avoid a tractor or some massive piece of agricultural machinery left on the road with no lights. By the time of his death he had accumulated enormous debts, and as far as I know he and his father were, again, not on speaking terms.
Zeide died a year later, in February 1970. I keep his coordinates: Berazategui Jewish Cemetery, Manzana: 21 - Tablón: 140 - Sepultura: 43.