Ben Shahn, artist
For our purposes, let's say that even invented stories are still worth recounting.
They reveal as much about the artist as would the truth.
For the artist is the sum of his stories . . .
This is a photo of Zelda Leybeh Nudelman taken in Vilkomir, Lithuania, in 1918. She was maybe sixteen, seventeen years old, at the time. Hard to know, exactly, but she says she was born right after the great Yom Kippur fire, while her father was in the other room, waving a rooster over his head, shlugging kappores, and Wikipedia confirms there was indeed a huge fire in Vilkomir in the fall of 1902, so there you go. I didn’t know what Yom Kippur or shlugging kappores was until Zelda explained it had something to do with getting rid of your sins. At Ebenezer Baptist Church, where I sing in the choir, we talk a whole lot about sin, but no chickens are involved.
Anyway, Zelda decamped the old country right after the picture was taken, just before the Bolsheviks hit their stride, leaving lovers to slash their wrists or hang themselves all over Kovno Gubernia. According to Zelda, her Daddy was a poor tailor so I figure one of those admirers must have given her that little fox stole, right? Zelda never married, remained free as a faygel — Zelda told me that’s Yiddish for bird — free to fly in and out of arms, of beds, affairs. And today? Today Zelda lives here, in The Home For Really Really Really Old People, in Boca. She is, as she keeps saying, one-hundred and fifteen kenahora,
so she qualifies, in spades. I’m with Zelda 3:00 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., but no weekends. Every time I help her to the toilet she grabs my wrist and says how much she loves it in Boca, loves the sunshine, loves the pelicans that love the hunks of challah she tosses them when she walks the beach. Yes, with a cane, but still. She tells me there were no pelicans in Lithuania, only swans in the river that ran through her town. More than once she’s said, “The sea gulls standing on those wooden posts remind me of my suitors, standing on the bridge before hurling themselves into the icy water.”
When Zelda reminisces about the suicide-prone sea gulls, she can get downright melancholy. But she perks right up when she mentions her Vilkomir childhood playmate, Ben. “Such talented hands,” she keeps telling me. “With a stick he used to draw my picture in the dirt behind the shul.” I never knew what a shul was until Zelda taught me it was a Yiddish word for synagogue. When I bring Zelda her dinner tray,
she grabs me by the wrist and tells me, “When Ben and I were lovers in New York, he’d show up at my apartment for dinner in a red shirt. Appear unexpectedly bearded. Did you know I was his muse?"
The other woman is maybe his wife, Tillie, who he dumped for the second one, Bernarda. But what’s the difference? Ben always said, Surprise is the greatest gift which life can grant us. Or was it Boris who penned those words? Oi, silly me. Yes, it was Boris, my Yuri. To be a woman is a great adventure, he whispered as I turned everything upside down, emptying the dresser drawers. To drive men mad is a heroic thing. That man was a sweet talker.” By now, I can recite these stories by heart. Problem is, I keep Googling the names Ben and Boris and Yuri and Mellie and Sadie and Tillie and Bernarda, trying to figure out who the hell Zelda is talking about, but so far, no luck.
This Friday, when I brought Zelda her evening meds, she grabbed my wrist and said,
“Did I ever mention that when I left Lithuania
I went back to Austria to be with Gustav?”
Well, this was news to me, so I said, “No, Zelda. This is news to me.”
And then Zelda said, “Gustav was on his death bed, poor man, in that long smock he always wore, always naked under that smock, naughty boy. And was Adele there to care for him? No.
Only I was there at the end.
It was I he wrapped in a kiss as he died.
And don’t you think my portrait in the hat
is lovelier than that woman in her ungepatchked gold dress? Our love story, mine and Gustav’s, would have made a better movie, too.”
So now I’ve gotta Goggle ungepatchked and Gustav and Adele.
Should keep me busy over the weekend, except, of course,
when I’m at Ebenezer singing,
Count your many blessings, angels will attend.
Help and comfort give you to your journey's end.