From Lionel Trilling‘s library to mine.
Chava Rosenfarb, Confessions of a Yiddish Writer and Other Essays Edited by Goldie Morgentaler McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019 Scholar and professor Morgentaler has gathered an impressive collection of writings by her mother, Chava Rosenfarb. A survivor of the the Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz death camp, Rosenfarb eventually moved to Canada and spent her adult life practicing remembrance through her novels, stories, and poems. In these personal and literary essays as well as travel writings, Rosenfarb gives us a glimpse of the vicissitudes of the Yiddish world from her youth to the end of her life. Included in this volume are reflections on Sholem Asch, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Paul Celan, as well as explorations of feminism and translation. In what follows, I share passages which reveals this writer’s insight, commitment, and passion, which may lead us to deeper understanding of some of our own contemporary crises.
[When asked what message she has as a result of her experiences in Poland] The only answer I am capable of giving is to echo the passage in the Passover haggadah, which says that, in every generation, each individual must regard him or herself as having personally come out of Egypt. I would say that, in every generation, each individual must regard him or herself as having personally survived the Holocaust, and each person should transmit this awareness to the sons and daughters of the next generation. 24
The Nazis had not succeeded in wiping out the Jewish people, but the passing of time had made it ever more obvious that they may very well have succeeded in eradicating the Yiddish language and the culture that it nourished. After all, the majority of Jews who perished in the Holocaust had been Yiddish speakers. That generation could not pass on its language to its offspring—and without transmission from parent to child, a language is doomed. 186
[The Yiddish writer] creates in a vacuum, almost without a readership, out of fidelity to a vanished language, as if to prove that Nazism did not succeed in extinguishing that language’s last breath, that it is still alive. Creativity is a life-affirming activity. Lack of response to creativity and being condemned to write for the desk drawer is a stifling, destructive experience. Sandwiched between these two misfortunes struggles the spirit of the contemporary Yiddish writer. 190
I bore witness in the belief that there is no future for mankind if it refuses to face itself in the mirror of the Holocaust, disturbing and horrifying though that mirror may be….if we forget the Holocaust, we deprive ourselves of the knowledge of the human soul, with its hidden resources of love and care, of dignity and courage, for these were in fact the qualities that the humiliated, spat upon, doomed Jews displayed every day of the tortured lives they led between the barbed-wire fences of the ghetto. 21
But I have an account to settle with Germany and with the Germans of my generation. I do not know when my account will be settled. It is my personal account, and not one I propose that anyone else should keep, not even my children. 123 Read the rest of this entry »
Kadya Molodovsky, A Jewish Refugee in New York: Rivke Zilberg’s Journal
Translated by Anita Norich
The accomplished Yiddish writer Molodovsky wrote this novel in serialized form in 1940-41, knowing obviously what was happening at the time to her friends and family in Europe. But it was impossible for her to imagine the eventual enactment of a “Final Solution.” We readers in 2019 know what was to happen in the years following Rivke’s arrival and year of adjustments in the U.S. This makes the author’s portrayal of American superficiality even more piercing and jarring. Yet this theme of clueless nonchalance also interrogates also our present: Besides the consistently awful headlines each day, what unimaginable catastrophe is looming around the corner?
The women talked a lot about themselves and didn’t give me the slightest opportunity to tell them how I came to be a refugee. 2
When he dances [like Benny Goodman] all I can think about is that my mother was killed by a bomb, and I don’t know what’s happening with my brothers, although I’m sure they’re not dancing now. I have no idea what’s become of my father either. I’d go to the ends of the earth to avoid Marvin’s dancing, but where can I go? 8
I thought they were getting ready for a Purim ball, but they explained that they were planning an event for war victims. I couldn’t believe how happy they were. They joked and talked and ate [cake]. No matter what’s going on, there’s always cake. If they’re having a card party—cake; a birthday—cake; collection for those suffering in the war—more cake. 12
And on top of everything else, I was upset with Red. When he came, I told him about my father’s letter. “You’re here, not there,” he answered. I could see in his face that he wasn’t the least bit concerned. Red saw that it upset me, and so he added, “What can you do?” I don’t know if Americans are heartless or they just pretend to be. I have no idea. They’re probably pretending. 50
“What are relatives nowadays. Once upon a time an aunt was an aunt, I brought everyone of my nieces and nephews to America. So now they make an appearance only if they need something.” 53
I’ve learned at least one thing in America. Whether things are good or bad, the first thing you have to do is smile. 65 Read the rest of this entry »
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 »
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 »
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.”
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 »