Tristan Brodsky jogs across the block, toward his building, sidestepping the rotten produce the fruit-and-vegetable men pitch toward the gutters as they close up shop. He is late for a dinner table he will be the first to vacate, but Tristan's ears still perk, listening for the slaps and shouts that herald stickball. Tristan is a two-sewer man. If a game is being waged against the wall of Moishe's Delicatessen, he can cut the line and step up next to bat on neighborhood respect alone, take his two broom-handle swings at the pink rubber ball. No matter who is pitching, the fielders will retreat to the second water grate--the greatest compliment in life.
If eager dice tumblings and tough, anxious murmurs waft through the coal-smudged autumn air, Tristan can follow them into the brick-walled alley and extend a math-filled hand and be given the cubes as soon as the shooter makes his point or craps out. He can wager his train fare and win enough to buy himself breakfast tomorrow, or else lose his nickel and be fucked and miss tonight's class: yet another setback for the Jews.
The neighborhood is quiet, though, of boys his age. Only the old men are out tonight, standing three and four beneath the failing butter-colored shafts of the streetlamps, each group very close together, many hands moving in English, Yiddish, German. German, Tristan likes best, though he understands it least. He and his little brother, Benjamin, have a game in which they pretend to speak it, the joke being that each word is incredibly long and articulates a concept or circumstance so complex or specific that it takes a paragraph of English to define. Their father, on the street, invariably joins a Yiddish-speaking cadre. He will not teach Tristan the language, even though it's all around. Jacob's face darkened and he shook his head the one time Tristan asked, as if embarrassed to speak the tongue of the old shtetl or scornful that his American son wanted to know it. Tristan was unsure which was unworthy, he or the language. Regardless, the desire disappeared.
The apartment is three flights up, twelve mingled dinner smells away, and Tristan breathes through his mouth as he ascends. Everyone cooks the same food the same way in this tenement, this part of town. The thick-waisted matriarchs pick through the same piles of pale vegetables at the same wood-crate markets, filling sad cloth bags with potatoes and turnips and wilting cabbages and waddling down the street to haggle over stringy gray beef. Undernourished chickens dangle from the butchers' rafters on bloodstained lengths of rope, as if they had lost patience with the mundane gore of ghetto life and flung themselves to their demise. Every mother in the neighborhood culls dignity from her ability to sate a growing brood on water, chicken bones, and withered carrots.
It seems sometimes that the Jews think only of food, that for all the ritual and history and custom Tristan has endured in Hebrew school and seen dimly reflected at home, for all the professed sanctity of knowledge, all his people really care about is sitting down to a full table--what it's full with doesn't even so much matter, so long as the platters overflow.
Tristan's parents, everybody's parents, chase one foot with the other all day long and come home to a bowl of hot stew and a hunk of crusty bread to dip into it, and talk to their children about education with their mouths full. They buy two sets of dishes, buy the more expensive kosher meat, buy shul memberships, buy into the notion that the Jews are smarter than everybody else and that things are improving for them all the time, even if the country as a whole is in the shitcan and half the Bronx is on rent strike. For three months last year, Jacob kept a homemade blackjack under his bed in case goons came to collect, and Tristan's broomstick stayed close at hand for more than just stickball.
Already some of the most prominent men in America are Jews. Already we have Bernard Baruch, Felix Frankfurter, Groucho Marx, the good half of Mayor La Guardia. Already we have Hank Greenberg, the best first baseman in the history of baseball.
Already we have Tristan Brodsky, cutting past the rising smells of soup pots and gefilte fish: fifteen years old, the sum total of five thousand years of Jewry, one week into City College, a mind on him like a diamond cutter. Here is hope and proof incarnate even if he has not been to shul since his bar mitzvah and often skips dinner entirely, subsisting instead on five-cent apples bought from one of the six thousand vendors who have decided that hawking fruit is more dignified than joining the waiting list for city relief.
Tristan opens the apartment door and steps into the dim, grease-stained kitchen, where his father, brother, and two sisters are arrayed around an overburdened card table.
"Sorry I'm late," he says, picking up his fork.
His mother spins from the sink with a big woman's grace and waves an arm at Tristan's back. "Late for dinner is no problem. Late for opportunity, Jacob, that's what I worry about. They give him a scholarship, and already he's fooling it away."
Tristan stabs a bite of boiled beef and cabbage and squints across the table at his old man's wristwatch. He has five minutes to eat, if he wants to make it on time to the address printed on the postcard in his pocket noting that due to special circumstances the first meeting of Professor Pendergast's Contemporary Literature seminar will be held not on the City College campus but on Fifty-second Street, and it will meet not at 11:00 in the morning but at 9:00 p.m.
"What kind of a class meets at night?" Rachael adds when no answer is forthcoming, and returns to the suds-filled basin and the bobbing cookware. She has not yet sat down to eat; her food sits steaming on the table. When she's indignant, Rachael cleans.
When she is tired, which is most nights, responsibility for the dishes shuffles between Liza and Pearl. Tristan is expected to return to his room, his halo of yellow light, his studies. The wisest men in the country where Jacob and Rachael were born and raised, where they met and married, were nurtured in this fashion: sustained with meals and solitude, shielded from the trivialities of life, left unmolested to contemplate the Talmud. The same reverence for intelligence persists here and now, in the Brodsky household in the East Bronx in 1935, but the appropriate vector for it is no longer so clear. Except to Rachael.
"Law classes he could take, Jacob. Or medicine. Even science. Your son could be another Albert Einstein, with a brain like his. Will you not talk to him?"
Tristan's father dabs his mustache with a napkin and cuts his eyes at his elder son. With his mouth concealed, Jacob's expression is reduced to ambiguity, perhaps censorious, perhaps bemused. The napkin falls onto his empty plate, where it lands like a tepee.
"Tristan," he says in lumbering English, "how about being the next Einstein for your old mother here?"
"Sorry, Pop," says Tristan. "I don't think so." He is named not for the Celtic myth or the German opera, but a line of ladies' sweaters, Bertram & Tristan, that his father once peddled from his pushcart. Elias Tristan Brodsky is the full appellation, a salute to his maternal great-grandfather, but Tristan has not answered to his first name since the day he began school and found three other boys named Eli in his class alone.
Jacob drops his elbows on the table, interlaces his thick fingers, and rests his chin atop them. "Tough break." He winks at his son--a coordinated twitch of cheek and eyelid so quick, it might go unnoticed. All four children smile.
"He refuses," Jacob reports. "You want I should ask again?"
Rachael brandishes a soapy wooden spoon. "You two think you are funny. Ask why he should waste a whole class, instead of studying something that will help him get ahead."
Jacob's great square head swivels back toward his son. "Your esteemed mother wonders why you do not take up something of more utility, such as maybe ditch digging, or clock repair."
Rachael slaps her husband on the shoulder with the spoon, then points it at Tristan. "We are here," she says, "to survive. Adapt to the surrounding and you survive, as Mr. Darwin said. You don't adapt, you have to leave. Or die." She tucks the spoon beneath her arm. "We have to stay focused."
"It's just one class, Ma. I think I'm entitled to study something just because it's interesting. Besides, aren't we supposed to be the People of the Book?"
"That book." Rachael lifts a finger to point at the gilded Torah lying closed atop the highest cabinet, swathed in six months' worth of dust. "That book." She indicates the Midrash next to it, a tome Tristan cannot remember ever seeing open. "Not—what was it you had your face buried in last month?—Kafka. Not The Great Gratsky
"It's The Great
"Whatever it's called," says Rachael, triumphant, and Tristan peers again at his father's cracked timepiece. Somewhere between Kafka's shadowed villages and Fitzgerald's glittering West Egg, he thinks, lies the Bronx.
Jacob scratches his beard and watches his wife. When she turns on the water, he cups Tristan's cheek in his hand, gives it a light pat. His fingers smell of street grime, of the sweat he's wiped from his forehead. "I won't tell you what to do," he says. "What do I know? At your age, I was working in my father's shop. If not for your mother, I would hardly have picked up a book." He lowers his voice, just far enough to pretend his tone is confidential. "As for her, she used to read I. L. Peretz until I thought she would go blind."
"Only after I was done with all my work and had a few minutes for pleasure." Rachael twists at the waist and looks at each child in turn. "You can read all the novels you want, after you have made yourselves successful."
"The real brains skip a generation in this family," Jacob announces, not for the first time. The outstretched palm again, reaching for Tristan's cheek. The pat, harder than before. The refrain: "Better you than me, boy. Better here than there." He points toward the air shaft and, presumably, Poland.
"Right." Tristan spears the final chunk of meat on his plate, swipes it through the thin gravy, and plucks it from the tines with his teeth, chewing as he pushes back his chair and rises from the table, swallowing as he kisses his mother on the cheek. From atop a three-foot stack of browning Jewish Daily Forwards he snatches a cardboard-bound notebook and clamps it in his armpit, then steps around his father and makes for the door. Benjamin's clear light eyes dart after Tristan, drinking in the brusque departure of his elder.
Tristan slams the door, lopes down the stairs, and hits the pavement. The elevated tracks rumble across the street, and he reaches the platform just in time to slip on board the last train car. He stands by the window, staring at warm kitchen-window dioramas, cutouts in the soldier-stolid buildings, and marveling at the whole stalwart notion of living within the cramped enormity of stone and brick heaped on this island. Paving the roads: How on earth did they do it? How long did it take? How was the water separating Brooklyn from Manhattan bridged?
He wonders if there were any Jewish architects or city planners, and decides not. Jews would still be debating the precise shape of Central Park. Tristan imagines a great gaggle of them, shouting and pointing compasses and slide rules at one another while teeming immigrants stand in an endless line outside the office window, freighted with suitcases and babies, waiting for their homes to be built. Across from the immigrants loiters a row of construction workers with broom-bristle mustaches, tools at the ready, thick forearms crossed over their chests. They roll their eyes at one another.
And just like that, Tristan's exuberance peters away. The world fills up again with striving Bronx dwellers, recasts itself in wan, selfish hues, and pulls him in. He thinks of Mr. Jennings, the best teacher he had last year in high school if not the most appealing, the one who impressed upon Tristan that to appreciate the beauty of Latin you must think like a Roman--understand the words in the order they are written, rather than transplant them mentally to their Germanic homes.
One day, Tristan was partnered with an exacting, watery-eyed fellow by the name of Sammy Fischer for a writing exercise. After class, Jennings detained Tristan, looked up at him with his small hands laid flat on his desk and said, You don't like Fischer, do you
Jennings had no way of knowing it, but Fischer was the boy with whom Tristan shared his bar mitzvah day, as well as the spate of lessons leading up to it. They are a week apart in age, two buildings apart in distance.I like him fine, sir
.No you don't
. Jennings smiled. Go on, Brodsky. You may be frank
Tristan shifted his weight. I suppose I don't particularly care for him, sir. No
Jennings raised an index finger. That, Brodsky, is because Fischer is exactly like you
. The teacher leaned back in his chair, appearing quite pleased with himself.
The train doors open on Fifty-seventh and Tristan trudges the length of the platform, eyes fixed on the downtown skyline and the proud, hollow trunk of the structure known as the Empty State Building. Over a hundred floors, and rents so high that most of them have never been occupied. It must be the quietest place in New York.
The station at Fiftieth would have brought him closer to the address in his pocket, as would have transferring to a West Side train back at 116th. But Tristan hates backtracking and lacks the patience to stand still, and he likes walking. He buttons his jacket, smoothes his hands over his chestnut hair, and cuts a path southward, darting west when traffic blocks his way.
A thousand little things are different down here. Newsstand rags blare HITLER'S LOVE LIFE REVEALED! and KINGFISH KILLER INNOCENT? WITNESS SAYS LONG'S BODYGUARDS TO BLAME in bright, crisp letters, with nary a gnarled Hebrew character in sight. Men's suits seem cut from a more cunning fabric, somehow, as if they'll never wrinkle, and ladies' dresses are soft and light about their calves. Clothing speaks elaborately on the wearer's behalf, doesn't mumble go away with downcast eyes. People are on their way out and on their own time; no one will be where they are now at this hour tomorrow. There is perfume in the air, perfume and possibility.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The End of the Jews by Adam Mansbach. Copyright © 2008 by Adam Mansbach. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.