Hold It All

Category: Yiddish

“Born Only Yesterday, and Already She Speaks Like a Perfect Mensch”

12.14.17

Dear Dianne,

I think this is the 4th time I’m reading Meshugah. It was originally serialized in the Yiddish Daily Forward. Because I’m reading it with you, and because Hedy is on our minds, in our hearts, I am paying more attention to the voices, the dialogue this time around. I marked the following passages, see what you think. Imagine twenty-five-year-old Hedy amidst such characters in NYC in 1949!

MA= Max Aberdam
AG = Aaron Greidinger
IS – Irka Shmelkes
M = Miriam
P = Priva

“Don’t be frightened, I haven’t come back from the Great Beyond to strangle you!” MA

“I’m alive, I’m alive.” AG
“You call this living?” MA

“My friend, I may have lost everything, but a bit of sense I still have. Though I’m in debt over my head, I owe nothing to the Almighty: as long as He keeps sending us Hitlers and Stalins, He is their God, not mine.” MA

“Where have you been all during the war?” AG
“Where have I not been? In Bialystok, in Vilna, Kovno, Shanghai, later in San Francisco. I experienced the full range of Jewish woes.” MA

“In all America you cannot get a decent cup of coffee. Hey, waiter! I ordered coffee, not dishwater!” MA

“In New York I found I was home again—they are all here, our people from Lodz and Warsaw.” MA

“I live on pills and faith—but not in God but in my own crazy luck.” MA

“Most of my clients are women, refugees from Poland who haven’t learned to count in dollars. They were driven half-mad in the ghettos and concentration camps.” MA

“The world is turning meshugah. It had to happen.” MA Read the rest of this entry »

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“If the Messiah Comes, He’ll Come to This Cafeteria in Miami”

Isaac Bashevis Singer, Shadows on the Hudson
Translated by Joseph Sherman

Like Meshugah, this is another novel translated from the Yiddish and published after Singer’s death. In Shadows I was gripped by the various characters with all their quarrels and struggles over what constitutes Jewish identity in the decades after the European catastrophe and the founding of the State of Israel…

“Well, now I can hate him with a whole heart.”

“What do those holy souls think when they look down from heaven and see Jews consumed by their businesses, as though there were nothing else, as if the greatest devastation in Jewish history had never taken place?”

“He was someone who could blacken the sun.”

“A Jew without God is a gentile, even if he speaks Hebrew.”

“Scum floats to the top.”

“You won’t believe it, but the only shred of Jewishness left here resolves around the cemetery.”
“May he be the last of his line.”

“What binds them together? Not a God, not a country, not even a language. Among ourselves we speak a little ungrammatical Yiddish, but our children can’t even do that. Many of them are Communists. My own son won’t hear a word against Stalin—for him, Stalin’s murderers are sacrosanct.”

“May you never know what I’ve suffered.”

“I’m certain that if Tolstoy had lived longer, he would have turned to Judaism—that is to the prayer shawl and phylacteries and fringed ritual undergarments and the dietary laws. There is not, and cannot be, any other kind of Jewishness.” Read the rest of this entry »

After Kishinev

I’ve shared this story with hundreds of friends and students over the years.

After a pogrom in Russia in 1903, the author was invited to contribute to a literary collection to be circulated to aid those Jews who suffered attacks. The man who issued the invitation was Sholem Aleichem.

The man who contributed three stories was Leo Tolstoy. Sholem Aleichem translated the stories from Russian into Yiddish. This one is “Three Questions,” which I first read in Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Being Awake in 1982.

What is the best time to do each thing?
Who are the most important people to work with?
What is the most important thing to do at all times?

After the story, Nhat Hanh offered this thought:

“Tolstoy is a saint—what we Buddhists would call a Bodhisattva. But was the emperor himself able to see the meaning and direction of life? How can we live in the present moment, live right now with the people around us, helping to lessen their suffering and making their lives happier? How? The answer is this: We must practice mindfulness. The principle that Tolstoy gives appears easy. But if we want to put it into practice we must use the methods of mindfulness in order to seek and find the way.”

Melting a Heart of Ice

Late in life, I got around to reading Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman
(translated by Hillel Halkin, who suggested it was “possibly the greatest of all Jewish novels”). It sounded funnily familiar….

Flogging a dead horse won’t make it run any faster 3

As long as a Jew lives and breathes in this world and hasn’t more than one leg in the grave, he mustn’t lose faith. 3

Not counting suppers, my wife and kids went hungry three times a day. 4

We’re God’s chosen people; it’s no wonder the whole world envies us. 5

The shadows of the trees were as long as the exile of the Jews. 5

With my troubles I was six feet underground already! 6

They’ll pay with back interest for everything they’ve done, except God has a long memory. 6

If you’re looking to buy something, I’m afraid I’m all out of stock, unless I can interest you in some fine hunger pains, a week’s supply of heartache, or a head full of scrambled brains. 7

“To Boiberik,” I say, “it’s not a long way at all. Only a few miles. About two or three. Maybe four. Unless it’s five.” 8

I know my way around Boiberik the way you do around your own home! 11 Read the rest of this entry »

Summer Reading List

Sholem Asch
Yankev Glatshteyn
Vasily Grossman
Malka Heifetz-Tussman
Dovid Katz
Irina Klepfisz
Koheleth
Kadia Molodovsky
Leib Rochman
Chava Rosenfarb