by Janice Segal Weizman
YIDDISH TALES. The book lies casually, almost coyly, on my desk. It’s a hardcover bound in fading blue cloth, a 1946 reprint of a 1912 collection of Yiddish stories translated into English. I found it in a used book store in Tel Aviv, and though the volume’s dusty presence there was clearly the result of a long and inscrutable journey, I regard it as the culmination of my own pilgrimage — for it is I who came, by way of a convoluted mental odyssey, to the threshold of its pages. The title is one I never expected to have in my possession, and the story of how and why it happened, though not remarkable in any conventional way, speaks for something of a sea change in my understanding of who I am, and where I came from.
This odyssey, ostensibly far less heroic and adventuresome than the word deserves, begins in Toronto, Canada, somewhere in the 1970s, where the relative flatness of that city corresponds to the relative flatness of my sense of my identity. Canadian. Jewish. Three grandparents born in North America. The one who immigrated as a young child has died years ago. As far as I know, my family has come from two places: Winnipeg and Iowa City.
My parents have put me in a Jewish day school, and my classmates have family names like Friedberg, Kestenberg, Kaminker, Schecter, Levitt, Granovsky, Sadowski. Later on, when I move on to a Jewish junior high, they’re joined by more names; Greenberg, Glassman, Himmel, Levin, Rotstein, Altman, Zeidner. And then high school: Zagdanski, Eisen, Tannenbaum, Wyman, Gotlieb, Berniker, Kalb. These names, too, are flat; I’m entirely unaware of what lies at their heart, from where they came, to whom else they might have once belonged. As I am of my own name. Or my mother’s name before she married: Posner. Or the maiden names of my grandmothers, Shulman and Sherebrin. Just names. All flat.
Though my parents moved to Toronto from Winnipeg after they married, we were, by then, well enmeshed in the local Jewish community. The Jewish community in Toronto is not an old one, dating back only to 1840, but to a child even ten years seems like forever, and though I was aware that most of the community were the children and grandchildren of immigrants from Eastern Europe, this fact had little significance for me. Toronto itself was a “young” city, founded in 1793 and established as a city in 1834. The dominant classes were of British descent, but by the 1970s the population was changing, absorbing one wave of immigrants after another, and on its way to becoming proudly “multicultural.”
Most of these immigrants had managed to qualify for Canada’s highly regulated immigration quotas, which favored educated, wealthy, employable and English-speaking applicants. It made for a society where everyone, even the new immigrants who had to begin from scratch, lived in relative prosperity. The troubles of the world, indeed the troubles of life, were somewhat far removed. Even now, when I visit Canada, it appears to me a sort of paradise where no one is hungry, or desperately poor, or threatened, where problems find solutions and a basic attitude of fairness may be taken for granted. As I matured, I became aware that life in Canada had a somewhat sanitized feel to it. The persecution, corruption, brutality, and poverty that we saw on our television screens were happily far from our political/sociological sphere, and to make matters even happier, blatant anti-Semitism, the kind we learned about in Jewish history classes, was unfashionable.
Jewish life in Toronto flourished. There is a street, Bathurst, where, within the same two or three miles, one could (and still can) find kosher butchers, Judaica stores, Jewish bookstores, bakeries that sold knishes and rugelakh, and Jewish institutions such as synagogues, old age homes, day schools, and cultural centers. Many of the storekeepers and custodians of these places were elderly Jews with thick accents. It was clear to me that these people were born in a far-away place where speech was heavy and a little garbled. Why they had come, where exactly they had come from, and what sort of culture was behind their accents was a line of thinking that I rarely thought to pursue. What was clear was that they were different from us. They were old. Their stores were outdated. The foods they sold were foreign. And the titles that adorned the shelves of the Jewish bookstores seemed to create a space cut off and set apart from the rest of the world.
WE LIVED in a different area, not very far from Bathurst Street, but another world nonetheless, where people wore stylish clothes and lived in large, comfortable houses and drove everywhere in late-model cars. They spoke without an accent, and though everyone was Jewish, they were also obviously Canadian. The differences became even sharper when my class took a field trip to see the downtown neighborhoods where Jews had settled when they came over from Europe. There was, in fact, little to see, except for elderly Italians and Portuguese who had moved in when Jews moved out. But there was also a synagogue -– the Kiever Synagogue. Built in the first years of the 20th century, it seemed a place whose time had come and gone. No one used it, we were told, except for a few old-timers who still lived in the area. Afterwards we bought knishes at the United Dairy Restaurant, a place as dreary as any bakery whose clientele has, in every sense, moved on. It was, we were told, a Toronto institution, but to us it looked like a relic, hopelessly out of touch with the habits and aesthetic preferences of anyone under the age of 50. (The United Dairy subsequently moved uptown, where it experienced a renaissance and currently thrives as a popular bakery/restaurant.)
We were aware that we were the “descendants” of these Jews, the Jews of the Kiever Synagogue and the United Dairy Restaurant, but this fact seemed to have nothing at all to do with the landscape of our own lives, which were about Barbie dolls and Disney on Parade, about the Toronto Maple Leafs and Bruce Springsteen, about Atari consoles and downhill skiing. Eastern Europe was as far as Narnia. Even if we were vaguely interested, the area in question was hidden behind a heavy Iron Curtain. Who knew what was going on there now? The story we heard was that as long as the Jews in these places didn’t practice Judaism, things were basically okay. We, of course, were free to practice Judaism, but it didn’t seem to be the kind of thing one couldn’t live without.
What we did know of Eastern Europe came from two sources: Fiddler on the Roof, and the Holocaust. Fiddler on the Roof was much loved. The characters were colorful, the music catchy, the story full of drama. Though we understood that the people on stage were Jews, the story could have taken place in the Middle Ages, as far as we were concerned. Who knew anyone who lived in such poverty? Who consulted a matchmaker in order to find a groom? Who made a living riding around on a cart selling milk? Who went around declaring their faith in God, in spite of the apparent wretchedness of their lives? Who had to live with the notion that the police would not protect them? Who had to load up their belongings on a cart and look for a new place to live? Who would even settle for such a terrible life?
But if life in Fiddler looked bad, it was nothing compared to the legendary misery of the Holocaust. The black-and-white photos of life in pre-industrialized shtetls and ghettos were proof that this was not us. And the names — Warsaw, Lodz, Krakow, Vilna, Riga, and other, even stranger, names — not us. To be hated so much that perfect strangers wanted to kill you — well that certainly wasn’t us.
We spoke English, perfect, clean-accented Canadian English, while they spoke Yiddish, a language where the dominant sound seemed to be oy. As in oy vey, oy vey iz mir, oy gevalt; and also: groyse metziye, toyra, oyfn pripechik, zol zayn. You didn’t have to understand a word of it to know that this was a language for the unlucky; the very sound of it was, on the one hand, sarcastic and cynical, and on the other, an advertisement for one’s wretchedness.
The adults I knew barely spoke it. If they did use a word or a phrase, it was often with a smile of apology, or rolled eyes. They knew that they were uttering something archaic, a throwback to an invisible past that had gone with the wind and was now relegated to the realm of things which are no longer relevant. I was aware, the way children know, that it was going to pass from the world, perhaps in my own lifetime. But this notion was far from distressing; if anything, it seemed like there was little in Yiddish to love.
These, then, are the makings of a flat identity, where in the depths of one’s internal landscape, the past reaches back no further than three generations. A rupture had occurred, opening a seemingly unbridgeable gap between the culture of my European ancestors and my own, and creating a simple, reassuring dichotomy between Us and Them.
MANY YEARS AGO, I immigrated to Israel, a place which both brought me closer and pushed me away from my ancestors’ culture. Closer, because Israel was built by people who came from the very same forgotten towns and lost cities as the Jews I knew in Canada. And further, because those same people had wanted to escape that legacy, to forget, to make over everything that they once were. The Zionist dream, more than its American counterpart, was an effort to reinvent the Jew. Its vision required total commitment and unswerving loyalty, a change of dress, a reconstructing of Jewish traditions, and most importantly, a change of language. On this point, the collective of revolutionary nation-builders was unforgiving, so much so that to speak Yiddish was considered a provocation and a betrayal. Most of the young Eastern European Jews who came over understood and even agreed with this program of enforced Hebrew.
Of course there is much of that suppressed Yiddish culture that still exists in Israel. One can find it in certain habits of speech, in the works of writers like Chanoch Levin and Etgar Keret, in the Yiddish songs of Chava Alberstien, in the recipes passed on and resurfacing in Tel Aviv restaurants. In fact, if one wants to know a little about the world of Eastern European Jewish life, Israel is not a bad place to start. The problem is that, authentic as these cultural signposts may seem, they are very poor substitutes, most of the time mere caricatures. And when Ashkenazi Israelis themselves — those people who, like me, are descended from the Jews of Poland and Belarus and Lithuania and Galicia — partake of them, they come to them not as sons and daughters, but as visitors.
SEVERAL YEARS AGO I envisioned a story about a young woman who sets out on a journey. The setting was not, as one might expect, North America, or even Europe, but the heart of the 9th-century Middle East, what we today call Iraq. As I worked on the book, I tried to put myself into the head of my protagonist, making her way in a world which was utterly foreign to my own experience. It was only several years later, after the book was completed, that I began to ask myself why I, the descendant of Eastern European Jews, had chosen to write about a subject so far removed from my own background. Why had I not, as most writers do, turned to my own historical heritage? What did that say about my historical heritage? What did it say about how the community that I came from saw that heritage? What did it say about me?
For the first time, I found myself confronting what can only be called an ambivalence. It occurred to me that everything I knew about Eastern European culture had come to me through some very narrow and selective filters: the filters of Communism and Zionism, of Holocaust literature and film, of Broadway and Hollywood, of jokes about old Jewish men and overbearing Jewish women. I saw now that these, like their Israeli counterparts, were mere caricatures, impoverished markers for what was once a culture, a worldview, a complete society. Only a hundred years separated me from the mindset that my great-grandparents had happily left behind, yet the essence of that existence was lost to me.
Like a traveler trying to find my way home, I attempted to re-examine the two strands of my identity, Canadian Jewish and Israeli. The story of Jewish immigration to North America is, for the most part, one of extraordinary success. The descendants of the Jews who left the shtetls are at the forefront of the scientific, intellectual, financial, philanthropic and creative endeavors of their societies. As for Israeli Jews, they succeeded, in the face of impossible odds, in creating a country from nothing. I pondered the fact that these two communities were connected not only by religion, but also by their common humble ancestry.
And then there were the astonishing progeny of the lost European communities: Freud, Einstein, Chagall, Emma Goldman, Golda Meir, and the famously disproportionate number of Jewish and part-Jewish Nobel Prize winners — all descendants of European Jews, many of them shtetl dwellers for whom legally-enforced economic crippling, severe educational quotas, unchecked vilification and slander, and officially sanctioned anti-Semitic riots were inevitable facts of life. How was it then, that this community had produced so many people of accomplishment? What could explain the astonishing metamorphosis of the Jewish people — from miserable refugees to successful and prosperous citizens? From ragged peddlers to creative geniuses. I pondered these questions not as one looking for a magic formula to sociological success, but in terms of the messages a culture transmits to its members. It was an inquiry that led me to some surprising answers.
If all we need to know are the facts, we can content ourselves with history books, but when we want to get a sense of the invisible walls, and windows, that a culture builds around its inhabitants, we could do worse than to look to literature. I had long been familiar with the names Sholem Aleichem, Y. L. Peretz, and Mendele Mokher Sforim. But when I revisited their writing, much of it seemed overly sentimental in style, character, and tone. Its endearing characters, folktale lingo and didactic slant made it seem a literature for children, an appendix to be added on to “serious” texts about the period.
As a continuation of my inquiry, I sought out the women. Not just Esther Kreitman (I. B. Singer’s little-known sister), and Devorah Baron, but collections of writing by Yiddish-speaking women, resuscitated and translated by those who feared that their works were about to sink into oblivion. I discovered Arguing with the Storm, and Found Treasures, anthologies compiled by a dedicated group of translators who were passionate about bringing Yiddish writing by women to the attention of English-speaking readers. Though these stories, too, were often replete with sentimentalism and cliché, one could sense that their work was a sort of bearing witness, voices from a world which no longer exists, in a mind frame shaped by a particular time and place.
It was the same world as Tevye’s, as Peretz’s humble tzadikim and Mendele’s conflicted yeshiva boys, but viewed from a different angle, from the side of the back-story, as it were, through the eyes of the women who washed the clothes and plucked the chickens and cooked the borscht and wiped the children’s noses while the men were off in the beys midrash or on the roads. It was a life where the shtetl was the entire universe, its days and nights rife with the affairs of one’s family and neighbors. The outside world was merciless, but the steady, eternal rhythm of the weekly Sabbath, the monthly moon, the celebrations and the festivals bestowed their own fullness and meaning. The years were punctuated by the ancient customs marking births, deaths and weddings, and the constant, resolute separation of the holy and the mundane gave time and space, the days and the places, an additional, perhaps supreme, layer of meaning that could transcend their reality of ruthless tsars, exploitative noblemen, inflamed peasants, and murderous Cossacks.
The stories painted a picture for me, but I understood that what I was seeing was a translation; not a portrait, but a poor photocopy. And it was here that I developed, for the first time, a curiosity about Yiddish. I sensed that this language, abandoned and scorned, yet once spoken by the ancestors of every Ashkenazi Jew, might hold wisdom and secrets, codes and clues, readily available to any speaker of the language, but hidden from all other ears. I had begun to suspect that, more than a litany of oys, Yiddish was the key to a lost civilization
I came across Michael Wex’s Born to Kvetch. Though its cover — a picture of a Haredi boy scowling in vexation, and a blurb proclaiming Now with more kvetching — gave me pause, the book affirmed my sense that Yiddish was more than a language, nothing less than a fully-formed, self-contained reality, a unique state of consciousness, a way of making sense of a world that seemed to condemn you at every turn. I came away from the book startled by what had been lost and in awe of the culture that had lived in this language.
IT IS RARE to hear Yiddish spoken in Israel outside of certain Hasidic communities, and on the few occasions that I did hear it, my instinct was to block it out, change the channel, turn away. But one night as I sat in my car waiting for my daughter, I was flipping around the radio when I suddenly heard the sounds of Yiddish, familiar yet utterly impenetrable. I was about to flip further, but something made me stop and listen. The speaker seemed to convey a certain clarity, a confidence and lyricism that I had never heard before in spoken Yiddish. The tone suggested that he was reciting a poem. The voice then began to speak Hebrew, translating what had been said. The words he spoke, suddenly intelligible and arresting, emerged like a clear voice from a sea of static. They were words that I have since returned to, and that I now see fit to quote, in Barbara and Benjamin Harshav’s translation, on the page in English:
Don’t count the toll of wounds,
The suffering, the scar.
You have ignited once
A newborn baby star.
And at your feet, a spring
In our dark cave has curled,
And suddenly a baby’s
Cooing has touched the world.
And like the purest spring
The word was then revealed,
But up above us no one
Must hear what must be sealed.
I knelt for you in thanks,
My spirit too did lift,
I brought you from above
Two blades of grass, a gift
(From A. Sutzkever: Selected Poetry and Prose. University of California Press, 1991.)
I wonder how many students of literature, or even how many Jews, would have nodded their heads in recognition. Not many, I’m afraid. I certainly didn’t. But only a few lines were sufficient for me to recognize that this was something special, something that suggested an entirely new way of hearing Yiddish. I remember how, in the remaining minutes of the program, a few more poems were read out, first in Yiddish and then in Hebrew. How I tried to catch the words, to hold the language in my head. How I listened afterwards for the name of the poet, and then repeated it until I dug a pen and paper out of my bag and wrote it down.
Avraham Sutzkever. I didn’t know then that he’s been called one of the most important poets of the 20th century. The poem, I later discovered, is the first part of To My Wife, which he wrote after the couple had escaped the Vilna Ghetto to join the partisans in Narocz Forest. The fact that he wrote this poem after their infant was murdered by the Nazis is something that, to this day, I can’t quite get my head around. To read the poem in its entirety is to come away with a startling vision of Jewish resistance, human resiliency, and the power to bestow hope on catastrophe.
It was on that cold night in the car that I first experienced a Yiddish that was more than a chorus of oys, more than a tongue cobbled together by people who didn’t have a proper language of their own, more than a sarcastic retort to a bitter turn of fate. I was able to perceive then that the Yiddish language is the gateway to a world with as much depth and weight and breadth as any other, in which people might express a bottomless range of feeling and thought. In which people, indeed, had. It struck me then that anyone who is curious about literature and Jewish identity and even modern history should study Yiddish, for the simple reason that it is the only place where the flavor and texture, the paradoxes and the truths, the unique and extraordinary grammar of the Jewish Eastern European psyche can be revisited.
FINDING SUTZKEVER was like finding the key to a long abandoned castle, and having entered it, I was able to finally reacquaint myself with Yiddish writers whom I had so breezily dismissed. And all of a sudden, the world of those distant, foreign, caricature-like Jews came alive for me. Their willingness to live out the destiny of a “chosen” people, with all that entailed. Their precarious balance between faith in the coming of a Messiah and the burden of life in the here and now, where it’s 20 below zero and there’s no money for firewood and the children are crying for one more spoonful of cold beans. The will to reject the ways and norms of the society that engulfed them. The steadfast choice to continue, generation after generation, believing against all they could see with their own eyes that God had a master plan, and that His laws constituted the best way, the only way, for them to live.
I could finally read between the sentimental and heart-breaking lines to see that my ancestors had struggled with the most vivid and dramatic of dilemmas; torn between the familiar, comforting realm of family and tradition, and the beckoning of a dazzling world, bright with promise, calling them to cast off tradition and take hold of their own destiny. And that, as they negotiated the real threats and tenuous promises of “emancipation,” the stakes were high, higher than we, with our liberal democracies and quota-free universities and Constitutional rights and dogmatic belief in our own limitless possibility, can scarcely imagine.
And I could rethink all I had assumed about the places; those mysterious, dense names that we recognize mostly from Holocaust and pogrom stories — Warsaw, Vilna, Krakow, Lodz, Kishenev, Odessa, Kiev, Minsk, and others that seem to belong to another world — Zamosk, Zhitomere, Kasrileveke, Frampol, Tuneyadevka. I grew up in the final years of the Cold War, when the histories of these places, so near in time, yet so far, were both concealed and unspoken. When the time came, when it was again possible to travel back, to walk their streets and breathe their air, the people who had lived the drama of that life no longer existed. Only the faded writing on crumbling tombstones in the cemeteries testify that they were ever there at all.
Their children, like seeds of a dandelion, have sailed out into the world, casting roots in every corner of the globe. They speak now in a multitude of languages and they are free to do whatever their hearts desire. The tradition that sustained them through libel, expulsions, death and destruction, is now as a book on the shelf, available for examination at their leisure. And the places that were once the heart of Jewish existence are now empty of their Jews, no more than foreign names on a map.
Who will remain, what will remain?, Sutzkever asked, and it seems that of the wondrous, self-perpetuating Jewish culture that once existed in Eastern Europe, nothing remains. The sites were destroyed, the people are gone, and even the language, once a living, evolving presence on millions of tongues, has been relegated to archives and universities. All that’s left is the rare, yet prosaic story of a woman who goes into a used book store in Tel Aviv, or New York, or Paris, or Buenos Aires, spies a forgotten volume entitled Yiddish Tales, and takes it home, intending salvation as one offers it to a lost puppy or a discarded, almost-dead flower.
But what of the children I once knew? What of the Freedbergs, Kestenbergs, Kaminkers, Schecters, Levitts, Granovskys, Sadowskis? What of the Greenbergs, Glassmans, Eisens, Levins, Rotsteins, Altmans, Zeidners? And the Zagdanskis? The Tannenbaums, Wymans, Gotliebs, Bernikers, the Kalbs? What of them and their children?
Last year, on a visit to Toronto, I was invited to watch my niece’s soccer game at a Jewish day school. As I observed the faces of my niece and her friends, I was struck by something familiar about them, as if I had seen them before. As if I already knew them. And for a brief moment, the trim lawns and comfortable houses and SUVs that surrounded the playing field seemed to fall away, and I could see these faces in another place and time.
Instead of a soccer ball, a prayer book; instead of a cell phone, a piece of embroidery; instead of running shoes and fleece jackets, patched coats and caps. Instead of hair set in pastel hair bands and barrettes, long locks woven into tight braids.
The faces, these bright, new faces, were eerily reminiscent of those one sees in collections of shtetl photos — black and white, with somber eyes staring into the camera as though fully aware of the singularity of the moment. Watching the soccer players who could have been their great, great grandchildren, I was struck by the finality of it. This, then, is what remains. Perhaps, in our post-modern, skeptical, faithless consciousness, it is the only thing that remains. A trace in the eyes; a shadow in the curve of the face. The sudden flash of expression. The lost memory in a name.
That, and the question that moves us to set down our understanding of it all in words.
Janice Segal Weizman was born in Canada and has lived in Israel for thirty years. She is the author of the award-winning historical novel, The Wayward Moon (Yotzeret Publishing, 2012), and her writing has appeared in Lilith, the Jerusalem Report and other journals.