In a Crowded Place

“Strangers warmed each other, breathing down each other’s necks and in each other’s faces.”

Jonah Rosenfeld Translated from the Yiddish by Rachel Mines
May 12, 2020
New York City’s Sixth Avenue crowded with shoppers in 1903 as an elevated train passes above. Photo: Everett Historical via Shutterstock

Jonah Rosenfeld (1881–1944), one of the first Yiddish writers to focus on psychological realism, was born into a poor family in Chartorysk, Volhynia, in the Russian Empire (present-day Staryi Chortoryisk, Ukraine). After his parents died of cholera when he was 13, he was sent to Odessa to learn a trade. With the encouragement of I.L. Peretz (sometimes called the “father of modern Yiddish literature”), Rosenfeld published his first story, “Dos Lernyingl” (The Apprentice) in the St. Petersburg journal Fraynd in 1904; his first book of short stories appeared five years later. In 1921, Rosenfeld emigrated to New York City, where he became a major literary contributor to the Forverts. Rosenfeld was a prolific and popular writer in his time, but because he wrote exclusively in Yiddish—and very little of his work has been translated into English—he is rarely read or studied today. 

Rosenfeld’s work is striking for its unflinching depictions of the human psyche under stress, which stand in contrast with the often-sentimentalized depictions of cozy, early 20th-century Jewish family life in some later works, like Fiddler on the Roof. His work typically focuses on the socially marginalized: immigrants, women, and workers. Alienated and impoverished—financially, spiritually, and socially—his characters struggle, almost always unsuccessfully, to build bridges between their internal worlds and their external communities as they attempt to define their identities in an unfriendly, rapidly changing world. 

“In a Crowded Place”—excerpted from The Rivals and Other Stories (Syracuse University Press, 2020), a new collection of Rosenfeld’s fiction in my translation—exemplifies many of Rosenfeld’s key themes. The unnamed protagonist, an inveterate daydreamer riding a busy commuter train, presumably on her way home from work, is surprised when a young man suddenly sits next to her. She is attracted to his good looks, his confidence, and his presumed wealth. But because her gender and class mark her as low-status, she is afraid to speak to him, or even to be seen looking at him. The entire story consists of the young woman’s interior monologue, the vividness of which stands in contrast to the almost complete absence of dialogue and plot. Traveling through the big city with all its vibrant life, she lives in a little bubble of isolation, unable to make meaningful connections with the world around her. Reading the story now, in this moment of social distancing, Rosenfeld’s portrait of alienation—and his depiction of a bustling city buzzing with chance encounters—resonates in startling new ways.

—Rachel Mines

In a Crowded Place

HE’D BEEN SITTING or standing somewhere else on the train but now he suddenly appeared near the empty seat beside her. As he sat down with an air of silent, friendly detachment, squeezing his leg close to hers, she felt a familiar feeling of intimate strangeness and, without her even being aware of it, the stranger was transformed: the moment he sat down beside her, she felt she was close to this man she’d never seen before.

It happened when the train was between stations. It was the interurban express, speeding along with its hurrying passengers, and the train was in a hurry too, running faster and faster, making more racket and in even more of a rush than the passengers on their way from one city to another. If it had happened at a station, she wouldn’t have noticed the man or his sitting beside her; what caught her attention was that he’d suddenly turned up and sat down next to her despite there being plenty of empty seats nearby. That was why she assumed he’d been sitting somewhere else, but seeing her, he’d come over to sit beside her.

The iron wheels rolled on the iron tracks; the train hurtled by a jumble of houses, woods, and dormer windows with short chimneys. It sped along as if it hadn’t stopped at a station just a few seconds ago and as if it didn’t plan to stop again a few minutes later. With gusto it gobbled its own clamorous tumult; then it ground to a halt, disgorged a stream of people, gulped in another, and dashed off to its next stop. Sometimes it took in more passengers than it let out, and sometimes the opposite, but even if there were only two or three people in a car, paying their nickel apiece, it sped on with the same urgency.

The young woman didn’t know her fellow passengers and they didn’t know her, but the strangeness was familiar: she experienced it twice a day, once going and once coming back. She turned sideways in her seat, looking with interest at all the empty seats. He could have sat anywhere, in any empty seat, but he was sitting next to her.

She turned her attention to the occupied seats. One young woman, head bent and eyes lowered, was doing her nails. It occurred to her that the man next to her had been sitting next to that other woman but he’d left the other one to sit beside her.

Glancing sidelong in his direction, she saw he was tall, that he sat solidly and confidently, and the thought crossed her mind that he must be worth something, a few tens of thousands . . . yes, that’s the way they sit, wealthy men like him, that’s the way they act: they’re never impulsive, always careful in their relationships with women.

She noticed a man on a roof. A man all alone, just standing there without a care in the world. She often saw things like that as she traveled by, and many others too, that she forgot the moment she passed. But this time she didn’t forget. In the chaos of the moving train and the commotion in the stations, the image of a man on a roof held its place in her memory like a living, motionless carving. It occurred to her that the man on the roof was somehow different from other men, and that his standing there on the roof, for no particular reason, had its own kind of purpose in and of itself. A man, detached from others and from the earth itself, standing all alone among the chimneys, as if he were at home and in a foreign place at the same time, standing there as though the roof were his natural environment.

She saw that the man sitting next to her had glanced sideways at her, and so he wouldn’t notice she’d seen him she pretended to ignore him and again turned her thoughts to the man on the roof, pleased that her attention had fixed on someone else, some stranger, not the man sitting beside her. She felt a vague thrill of revenge, as if she were cheating on him because he’d sat down next to her but was hiding the fact that he’d sat there on purpose, because of her.

She looked sideways at him again and this time she liked him even more. She saw he was clean shaven; she saw an ear, the corner of his eye, and the side of his nose, and again she felt that sense of intimate distance, a distance that any minute could become an intimate familiarity. Only she didn’t know who should begin it . . . but yes, she thought, it was up to him of course, so she didn’t let her eyes rest on him for long—she didn’t want to risk her gaze distracting him from thinking about her. She had confidence in herself; she knew she was attractive, and so, she thought, she had to be careful not to look too soon. If she did, everything would fall through: if she didn’t watch herself, this nothing, which might end up as something, could turn from one nothing into another nothing.

The young woman’s brain ran along its tracks, and so did the train, running and stopping according to schedule. She trembled inside: any minute now, and it would all be over—that nothing that might become something would vanish. Time forged ahead and the train did too, drawing closer to her stop and his. A few more stations and they’d have to get off. Maybe she’d get off first or maybe he would; maybe they’d both get off at the same station, to part as strangers. But maybe . . . maybe, the thought occurred to her, maybe he didn’t need to be on this train at all. Maybe the station where he had to get off . . . maybe he’d already gone far past his stop and was riding on, even if he didn’t need to, even if he didn’t even know where he was going, just because of her. He’d get off at the same stop as her; he’d walk with her and find out where she lived, and one day or another they’d meet on the train again.

It was a pleasant fantasy. But before each stop she got nervous. Any minute now, she thought, he’d get up and vanish, while at the same time she clung to the belief that he was still on the train because of her. That belief was soon followed by the less pleasant and more likely one that he’d get off at some station or another and . . . nothing! Gone! He’d disappear just like the man on the roof, and just as she’d never know why that man had been standing there, she’d never know why this man had sat beside her, and eventually she’d forget them both . . . or maybe not—maybe she’d always remember them, each man because of the other, both, in some incomprehensible way, having made themselves part of her.

She felt lost. Surely something could come of this, but she couldn’t make the first move—if she did, it would all be over. He’d wonder what kind of a person she was . . . but then again, maybe he was holding back because he was afraid of scaring her off. Well, she wouldn’t be scared if that’s what he was thinking, and if he thought she would be, he was making a big mistake, and because of that mistake . . . 

They were all like that. All wealthy people were just as careful as women.

At one station, men and women of various colors poured in and filled the railroad car, and it was everyone for themselves. Everyone who could grab a seat sat down, and those left standing clutched straps to support themselves and hung on tight. Strangers warmed each other, breathing down each other’s necks and in each other’s faces. Near the seated couple, closer to the man because he was sitting a little forward, a young woman had squeezed herself in. She didn’t even have a strap to hold onto and stood there, wobbling back and forth in the crowded train as it slowed and sped up, her legs wedged between the knees of the strange man. The woman beside him sat there, thinking her male companion was no gentleman, or he’d have given his seat to the pretty young woman leaning against him; she both wanted and didn’t want him to be a gentleman, enjoying the idea that he wasn’t giving up his seat because he didn’t want to leave her, because he liked being next to her.

In a few minutes, however, the young man stood up, bowed, and gestured politely to the standing woman, offering his seat. The young woman (was she married or not?) thanked him and sat down in his place. As it turned out, the man ended up standing between her knees just as she’d stood between his. The woman who’d been sitting next to him watched closely, musing on the fact that they were both pretending they didn’t feel the touch of each other’s legs; he seemed to have completely forgotten that he’d just politely given his seat to the young woman, who likewise was acting as if he hadn’t done so, ignoring him as if he’d disappeared completely.

She felt the sting of a veiled jealousy: she’d let him out of her hands of her own free will. If only she’d had the sense to know what to do, he wouldn’t be standing there so close to this other woman. He wouldn’t have stood up at all; he wouldn’t have been so polite. Only men who aren’t interested in sitting with their wives when they travel together, only men like that are so polite they’ll give up their seats to strange women.

So she sat beside her new neighbor, tangled in a web of incomprehensible feelings. She felt as though she knew them both, as though she’d known them for a long time, as though she’d already lived a secret, mysterious life with them. This big-city, rush-hour anxiety, with hundreds and thousands of people throwing themselves into each other’s faces every day, was a familiar part of her life: day in and day out, she felt the tension twisting and coiling through the densely packed, mobile crowds of people. They rode on.

She watched, she mused, and she wondered at the fact that though she was a stranger to everyone, she felt a kind of kinship with these two strangers, whether she thought of them as a couple, distinct from the crowd, or whether she imagined herself together with them. That was why she felt so lonely as she sat there beside them, lonelier than she felt among the motionless, densely packed crowd in the railroad car. In the short time of their journey, a commonality had developed between her and the couple—a short time in partnership, a fleeting moment, a tiny fragment of her life which would, in half an hour, be forgotten . . . or maybe it would stay with her always; she’d remember but never tell anyone because there would be nothing to tell, just as there was nothing to tell about the man she’d seen on the roof, who was there in the train like a third person standing between the nearby couple.

The poor woman sat there, a silent witness to the silent joining of two lovers and their pretense not to notice their union or the fact that their legs were tightly pressed against each other’s.

A few stations later, the woman sitting beside her finally got up. The train was still moving at full speed, but it was near the next station and would soon stop. With the overstated politeness that a man shows only when a woman has made a big impression on him, the young man stood aside for the woman he’d given his seat to, smiling happily at the pleasure she’d given him, right there in the open and at the same time hidden from all eyes. She pretended to ignore it all and with a little smile, as though they’d just met, she asked a question, to which she clearly knew the answer. He got what she meant and answered at length, and a minute later added, “I’m getting off here too!”

The woman still sitting there knew he didn’t have to get off, that he’d passed his stop a long time ago or that he still had farther to go, and she felt sick with envy, as if she’d been walking along with someone and that other person had found something valuable. She could have had the same good fortune, and perhaps she would have if the second woman hadn’t arrived. She was sure he’d get off the train with that other woman and they’d become friends on the way, and then . . .

The train stopped and the couple got off. Other people got off with them and different people pushed in to take their places, men and women mingling with strangers, squeezing close as if they were family. From somewhere came a muffled sound, like the buzzing of a huge, angry bee drilling deep into her ears. The young woman who rode the train twice a day looked at the strangers apathetically, the same way that people routinely look at their friends and families that they take for granted. Yet somewhere, deep in the back of her mind, the unknown couple lingered, and together with them a man, an unknown man on the roof of an unknown house.

Jonah Rosenfeld (1881–1944) was born in Chartorysk, Russia, and immigrated to New York in 1921. He was the author of 20 volumes of short stories, three novels, and a dozen plays.

Rachel Mines teaches in the English Department at Langara College in Vancouver, Canada. She was a Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow in 2016.