Calendars and Days: Lag B’Omer

Tomorrow I will shoot a bow and arrow, even though when I tried less than two weeks ago, I snapped the bowstring on my arm and raised a welt the size of a rutabaga.

Lag B’Omer is tomorrow. This is a peculiar holiday, maybe the quirkiest day of the Jewish calendar. The forty days of the counting of the Omer between Peysekh and Shavuous are a solemn time. The holiday of Lag B’Omer (the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer) is a respite from that solemnity, and includes the various pleasures one does not partake of during the counting, along with various other spring-like observances and festivities.

It is a day of weddings, otherwise not permitted during this time.

It is also a day of outdoor walks and meals, of archery and bonfires and haircuts. I never had anything to do with counting the Omer when I was young (my family mostly only took note of the major holidays and, with the exception of the Passover Seder and a few nights of Chanukah, did not faithfully observe even them), so it does not really resonate with me. But Lag B’Omer is so wacky that it’s hard not to get in the mood.

In fact, I got married on Lag B’Omer, even though it was a mixed marriage, and we did not have a Jewish officiant. It was on May 13, 27 years ago. It also happened to be on Mother’s Day.

The strange thing about having two calendars is that they tend move in and out of phase. This can lead to a certain blurriness of vision. Leslie’s yortsayt (the anniversary of her death) is on the 22nd of Adar, which may or may not coincide with March 18th. This year it was pretty close– March 20th. I had the choice of which day I got to be sad and grateful. Or, if I chose, I could be sad and grateful for the whole three-day period. I went with the 18th, because it was a Saturday, and so I could feel bad about not going to synagogue to say kaddish.

Today, Saturday, is the day on the ‘American’ calendar that would have been our anniversary. But tomorrow being both Lag B’Omer and Mother’s Day feels more to the point.

In Jamaica Plain, where we lived at the time, there is also the tradition of Lilac Sunday at the Arnold Arboretum which, I’m pretty sure, always coincides with Mother’s Day. We took a walk with both our families in the Arboretum the day before our wedding, and we had lots of lilacs at the wedding itself. Many years later, when Leslie was ill, she and I and the kids were all back in Boston and went to the Arboretum on Mother’s Day. In addition to smelling the lilacs, we looked at the Bonsai collection and got a plant to take home (I don’t remember what plant), and Adam had his first migraine headache. It was a bittersweet day, at a place that had once stood for pure pleasure. So that association is an overlay on top of the other calendars.

Just now I looked on the web and saw that Lilac Sunday has moved to Saturday this year because of predicted bad weather. So it turns out that the calendar can get blurry all by itself. Likewise, I suppose if it’s too rainy here for archery tomorrow, I could try for the day after. But on Sunday I’ll have better company.

What does any of this have to do with Yiddish? It doesn’t, except that Yiddish is a mashup, a hybrid of Jewishness and worldliness. So, when for idiosyncratic and very personal reasons I have multiple calendars in my head at the same time, or when I choose to observe a bit of a colorful Jewish holiday that clearly has Pagan roots, it just has that Tongue’s Memory feeling to me.

I don’t know if you are thinking of finals time or of blooming, of endings or beginnings, or both. Or maybe one day is so odd that it seems plucked out of the season. There are enough calendars, and enough births and deaths and anniversaries, that it sometimes seems like one can choose to remember whatever one wishes on whatever day one likes. Whatever the season means to you, I wish you season’s greetings.

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Bow and Arrow Challah from https://challahchallenge.wordpress.com/

Let it Remind You

An excerpt from Roberts Ventures (Robert’s Adventures):
“I shook myself. I woke up. Heniah was not sleeping. She said quietly to me:
‘Look, brother. It’s only the beginning of May and our boss’s house is already locked up. He has taken his whole family and gone away, by our very home shtetl, to his vacation house in Sosnovan Forest. Momma supplies his family with bagels every day. We work here and he pays Momma with our money, with our labor. Boruch, I wish with all my might that I was home.’
She cried quietly. I consoled her:
‘Sha, sister. There will come a time when we will take over the factory, and we’ll work for everyone, not only to satisfy the appetites of the rich. We will send sick workers on vacation so they get well. All the summer places and parks will be ours. Everything that we build and create will be for those who work.’
My sister answered quietly:
‘I will not live to see it brother. Maybe you will. So remember, when the time comes that there is a holiday, and the people march through the streets carrying flags, songs on their lips and joy in their hearts, let it remind you of your sister Heniah, who died young, and spat out her lungs in the factory.’
‘Don’t talk nonsense, sister,’ I answered. Your cough is not that dangerous. It will get better.’
‘Don’t comfort me with lies, Boruch. I know where I stand.’
“And in fact, she did not live long.”
— from ‘Robert’s Adventures’. 1938, By Solomon Simon
————————————–
Happy May Day.

translator’s note:

Though Solomon Simon was viewed as on the ‘right’ for his generation, the ‘right’ among American Jews in the late 30s was mostly made up of socialists by temperament who were unaffiliated with any revolutionary party, of Social Democrats, and, at what would be seen as the real ‘right wing’, of progressive Democrats who believed that Roosevelt would get most of the results that the left had been pressing for. Another post makes it clear that he grew at least somewhat more politically conservative over time. But there is no reason to suspect that his sympathies for working people fundamentally changed.

He also knew his audience. Writing for the children in the Yiddish schools meant writing not only for his own group, the Sholem Aleichem Folk Schools, but also for the parents and children of the Workmen’s Circle schools, who were more frankly socialist, and for the parents and children of the Farband (labor Zionist) schools, and the Communist schools run by “the Ordn”.

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Questions

Questions
by Solomon Simon
.
(based on two Hebrew stories by Yehuda Steinberg)
Published in Kinder Zhurnal, April, 1933 pp. 7-9

Joseph was six years old. A small, skinny little boy with big blue-gray eyes. A restless boy. He was always busy—working on, tinkering with, looking for, or dragging something around. Otherwise—talking.

His mouth never closed. Always asking questions. He was unendurable. Always in the way. He was generally yelled at for his talking. They called him chatterbox, long-tongue, millwheel, phonograph, and organ grinder.

Joseph did not know why people yelled at him. His father himself said that a good boy should learn well and grow up to know things, like his uncle Isaac. So, if you don’t ask questions, how can you know everything?

Grownups are just strange people. Take his dad—seems like an alright guy, a good man. But, nevertheless, strange.

Listen to this. When Joseph was four years old, he noticed the lightning for the first time, and he asked his father:

“Ta’te, how can fire come from a black cloud?”

His father did not answer. Then later he told everyone he knew what Joseph had asked him. Nu, if it was such a clever question, why didn’t he answer it?

Strange folks, the grownups. You ask them, and they don’t answer.

It rained for three days in a row. It was sad sitting in the house all day and not being able to go outside to play with his friends. Joseph sat and thought. God made the rain, after all. Maybe he could pray to God to stop the rain. But God is far away. Who knows if He would hear him.

Joseph asked his mother:

“Momma, if I talk, does God hear it?”

His mother answered, “Of course. And if you say good and nice things, God will like you. If you say bad things, he’ll punish you.”

“Does he hear when I whisper?” asked Joseph.

“Of course,” said his mother.

“Good, Momma,” said Joseph. I will pray to God to stop the rain. ‘God, God, stop the rain. I want to go out in the street and play.’”

The rain poured down without a pause. Joseph came to his mother with a new question.

“Momma, why didn’t God make the rain stop? I prayed to him.”

His mother got angry:

“Again already with the questions! Be quiet. Turn the machinery off for a while.”

Joseph retreated grumpily into a corner. And it irritated him even more when later in the evening he heard his mother telling his father all about Joseph’s cleverness.

Joseph had a lot of questions. But he did not know whom to ask. He repeated them and kept them in his head. If he met some clever person, one who would not get mad right away, he would ask him.

Surely his uncle Isaac would answer all of his questions. His father said that Uncle Isaac was the smartest man in America. He was a professor. But his uncle lived far away, somewhere in the state of Oregon. That’s where he was a professor. Isaac had never met his uncle.

One day his father came home happy, and told his mother proudly:

“My brother is in New York. He will visit us tomorrow. He’s coming here for dinner.

“Is he here with his wife?” asked his mother.

“No, alone. Came to give a talk at Columbia.”

“We should invite one of the neighbors. They should also…”

Joseph interrupted his mother:

“I want to come ‘to Uncle’s supper’ (dinner), too.”

“Look what else is new,” answered his mother, “we couldn’t possibly manage without him.”

“I will cry if you don’t let me,” said Joseph, peevishly.

“You will cry? How? Will you even be awake that late?” said his mother.

“I don’t care, I will be up,” answered Joseph.

“You know what, we’ll do it like this,” said his mother to Joseph. “You will say ‘Hello’ to your uncle, meet him, and then go to sleep. Good?”

“Good,” answered Joseph.

——————–

Joseph liked his uncle. He was tall, with gray eyes and black, curly hair. He had a big and ready laugh. He grabbed Joseph right away, lifted him high up to ceiling, and said:

“So, little rascal, do you like your uncle?”

“Yes, I like you,” said Joseph. “Did you bring me a present?

“Of course. I know nephews like presents. Here! I got you an electric train.”

Joseph took the bag, stood still and did not move from the spot.

“So,” asked his uncle, “why are you standing there like an statue; why don’t you open the bag? It’s late, almost time for you to go to sleep.”

Joseph fixed a pair of big blue-gray eyes on his uncle. His lips were scrunched as if he was about to cry.

“Shh. What are you about to cry? Feh. A big six year old boy should not cry,” teased his uncle.

“I don’t want your present,” answered Joseph, unhappy.

“What?” His astonished uncle asked.

“I thought if you forgot to bring me a present, you would have to answer my questions.”

“Your questions?” His uncle didn’t understand.

“Oh, now he’s started,” his mother mixed in.

“Oh. No, excuse me,” said his uncle, “I’m interested in hearing him out.”

His father signaled to his mother not to interfere.

And his uncle went on: “Why do you want to ask me these questions?”

“Because you are a professor, of course. You know everything.”

“OK, fine. Shoot.”

And Joseph began:

“I have a friend whose father is a carpenter. He makes furniture. But at home, they don’t have any nice furniture. Why?”

“A good question,” said his uncle. “Do you have more questions?”

“Yes,” said Joseph. “our maid.”

“What is with your maid?”

“She washes, she cleans all the time,” said Joseph, “and irons everyone’s things, and she herself always goes around in a wrinkled dress?”

“Another good question. Do you have more?”

“Yes. I asked Momma, why are there poor people in the world. She said that God loves poor people. If he loves them, why doesn’t he make them rich?”

Everyone in the house burst out laughing.

“Don’t laugh,” his uncle pretended to be mad. “Do you have more questions, Joseph?”

“Of course. A lot of questions. Should I ask them?”

“Wait a while,” said his uncle. “The questions you already asked are hard enough. To answer them, I would need to write a whole book, and I am only visiting here, I don’t have time. And you know what, son? Maybe I will not even be able to answer them in a book. Only on Peysekh will they be answered.”

“Peysekh?”

“Yes, on Peysekh, at the Seder. You know, of course, that’s when questions get asked, and the answers are given.”

Everyone smiled, and Joseph asked, seriously:

“Will they answer my questions??”

“Yes,” his uncle answered, “there, there is an answer for every question.”

“Good,” said Joseph, still serious. “This Peysekh I will go to my Zeidy’s for the Seder, and I will ask him.”

“Agreed,” answered his uncle. “Shake on it!”

Joseph gave his uncle his hand.

“Now good night, Sonny. Sleep.”

Joseph went off to sleep. His uncle sighed:

“Ach! If I only I did know the right answers to all the questions.”

—————-

The first Seder at his grandfather’s house. The whole family is seated around the table. The custom is for all grandchildren who know the questions to say them to their grandfather. Joseph is the youngest, so he asks last.

Joseph thinks: First I will ask Zeidy the other people’s questions, the ones that are in the Haggadah. Then I will ask him my own questions.

And now finally Joseph’s turn comes. His grandfather signals. “Ok. Joseph”.

Joseph begins.

“Zeidy, I would like to ask you four questions. The first question is,…” Done with the four questions from the Haggadah, Joseph wants to start asking his own questions. But his grandfather claps his hands right away. “Avodim hayinu…” We were slaves… Then, “A story is told of Rabbi Eleazer…” Joseph does not understand what kind of an explanation that was. He looks at his grandfather and waits for him to stop for a moment. When he stops, he will ask him. But his grandfather presses on. He speaks quickly, page after page.

Now his grandfather stopped. But before Joseph has time to open his mouth, his grandmother brings him a pitcher of water, a hand towel and a bowl. His grandfather washes his hands, makes a brokhe, and starts eating matzah. Joseph waits for him to swallow his bite. Now is a good time to ask. And he begins:

“Zeyde, now I want to ask you my…”

His grandfather speaks angrily and in Hebrew— one is not permitted to stop. “Morror, now we eat horseradish, as the law requires.”

Joseph wants to satisfy his grandfather. He grabs a little cup of horseradish, pops it into his mouth and gives one chew, and then another. It goes into his nose. Another chew, it takes his breath away. He starts to turn blue.

His mother notices and cries out:

“Woe is me, just look. The child is dying…”

“Not at all, not at all,” answers his grandfather calmly. The horseradish went in his nose. Give him a drink of wine.“

His mother gives him a cup of wine. Joseph drinks—wonderful,– the wine is cool and sweet, it cools the roof of his mouth. His whole body feels good.

But it’s still better in his mouth. He takes another little cup of wine—oh, it tastes good. He drinks a third cup.

Joseph did­ not remember when his mother took him and laid him in bed. When he opened his eyes, he was lying in his grandmother’s bed. Right away the floor leapt up and put itself where the ceiling was. The ceiling fell down, bells rang, wheels turned, black clouds snowed with fire. God sat above the floor, up in the sky, creating the moon and stars, making it rain, putting poor people out all over the world, and laughing… Joseph lay in soft white snow, but his father held a big cup of horseradish and shoved it into his mouth.

His head spun, everything was chaotic—he fell down into a deep hole. But no…

Morning. Joseph opened his eyes. His mouth was bitter, and his head hurt.

What happened yesterday at the Seder? He remembered.

He made a wave with his hand— there is no point asking any questions of grownups. They trick you. Even his smart and good uncle had made fun of him, telling him to wait for Peysekh. He waited, for nothing. If you want answers to questions, you have to find them out yourself. And sitting in bed, Joseph took out his little book and wrote down all the questions he had thought of. When he grew up, he said to himself, he would find out the answers himself, himself and with no one else’s help.

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Yetsies Mitsrayim

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In dem land fun piramidn
            In the country of the pyramids
Iz geven a kenig, beyz un shlekht…
            There was an angry and evil king…

These words are so ingrained that I cannot read them without singing them in my mind.

Zaynen dort geven di yidn
            There, the Jews were
Zayne diner, zayne knekht
           His servants, his slaves.
Zaynen dort geven di yidn
Zayne diner, zayne knekht

Pesakh. The Passover Seder, done correctly, is both meaningful and delightful, and, naturally, there are (to put it mildly) varying perspectives over how to do it correctly. I just typed the word ‘Haggadah’ into Amazon, and it returned a 34-page list of different variations of the book (at a dozen per page, that would be about four hundred choices) for sale. In my view, whatever hagode (Haggadah) one uses, there are several inherent tensions in conducting a seder. The biggest of these is between thoroughness and speed, between putting extra things in, and taking things out.

Regarding speed, my parents often told me about the seders of their youths, at which the hagode was read, complete, in three languages— Hebrew, Yiddish, and English. What they mostly remember is how the heads of families would read at breakneck speed. I was told that this was a contest to show off whose Hebrew was best. I looked and found a similar story described on the internet, along with the writer’s indignation about how alienating this had been for the children; old people zooming through an incomprehensible story in a foreign language, just to show off. But I’ve also heard somewhere that this custom of reading as quickly as possible comes from much less crass a motive– the tradition that we tell the story of Passover as though we ourselves are there, experiencing the Exodus. We speed through the reading of the story, according to this interpretation, because we might have to flee for our freedom at any second.

Regarding putting things in and taking things out, we have in our hagode the Extremely Charming Story of Rabbi This, Rabbi That, Rabbi Somebody, Rabbi Youknowho and Rabbi Whatsizface; the five of whom once got to talking with each other about the amazing Exodus from Egypt, and were so spellbound that they talked all night, until finally their students came in and told them that it was morning, and time to recite the sh’ma. And? That’s it. No hint about what they came up with in all that talk, nor whether their wives thought this story was the least bit charming (or even, for that matter, true). But someone thought it was charming, because we’ve been telling it for over a thousand years.

Why even waste blog space on this? Isn’t it enough at the seder? Well, the point of the Extremely Charming story is that whoever adds to the telling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt has great merit. As the anecdote itself embodies and demonstrates, we’re going for quantity over quality. Furthermore, the story teaches us that it is easier to put something into a Jewish ritual than to take it out.

There are all kinds of brief, revised, short, essential, abridged Haggadahs available among those on Amazon. In my family, we do not use these. Instead, we read the “New” Haggadah, which was published 70 years ago, under the editorship of Mordecai Kaplan. This work, which was designed in its day to be new and relevant, to tell the old story in a modern idiom, has become unalterable cannon.

So the peanut gallery groans at the stories that go on in too much detail, seemingly with no connection to our lives. We chop a verse or three from Dayenu, but the rest of the text stays, even as the dissidents in the family openly mock one sexist passage or cluck their tongues at the doctrinaire socialist ones. Two concessions to speed are made— only for the very most famous passages do we add Hebrew to the English, and after the meal all we do is sing a couple of songs. But however few they are, along with Chad Gadyo and Eliyahu Hanovi, the pyramid song stays.

Shver hot zey geplogt der kenig
            The king afflicted them badly
Laydn hot dos folk gemuzt…
            The people had to suffer…

In my mind, I hear my Uncle David’s basso profundo filling the air and prevailing over the voices of his sisters and the rest of us. But not with these words. This particular verse, they did not sing:

Vayl es hot farstanen veynik,
            Because few resisted
Veynik mut gehat in brust.
            Few had courage in their hearts. [repeat]

As far as I remember, the verse that says the reason that the Jews had to suffer so long and so badly was that too few of them had the courage to resist… that one was not in our hagode. The rather gruesome verse about children being mortared into the walls was actually in our hagode all this time, but as long as there were children (and there were always children), we never sang it. My mother only pointed it out to me a couple of years ago.

We concluded with the heroism of Moses. Otherwise, who knows how long the misery of slavery, or the seder, would have dragged on,

Ven in land fun piramidn
            If, in the country of the pyramids
Volt nit zayn a shtarker held
            There had not been a strong hero,
Velkher hot gekemft far yidn
            Who fought for the Jews
Mit zayn khokhme un zayn shverd.
            With his wisdom and his sword. [repeat]

And, if you look up ‘In Dem Land fun Piramidn’ on YouTube, that’s pretty much what you get: [link to you tube version here]. Pharaoh was cruel. The Jews suffered. Moses saved us. For my whole life up until I studied Yiddish, I had no way to know that more was being left out than was included.

The poem that would later to be set to music was written by a man named Dovid Edelshtat. Born in Russia in 1866, he was of the first full generation of secular Yiddish poets, a highly politicized group known collectively as the sweatshop poets. Edelshtat moved to the US at age 15. He was an anarchist, who joined the movement just after the Haymarket Riot in Chicago. Emma Goldman apparently referred to him as “a fine idealistic nature, a spiritual petrel whose songs of revolt were beloved by every Yiddish-speaking radical.” He not only wrote about sweatshops, but also worked in them, as a buttonhole maker. He died of tuberculosis in Colorado at the age of 26.

Called Yetsies Mitsrayim (the Exodus from Egypt), the original version of his poem did not have just the three verses sung at most seders, but twelve. Here is the text of a slightly modernized version, in full:

Full text piramidn for blog

I am grateful to Anna Gonshor (McGill University), who taught my literature class last summer, for sharing this version of the poem with our class. [note: I retyped it here, so any and all errors are mine, not hers]. It puts the intent of the song in an entirely different light.

Here’s a rough translation of stanzas 7, 8, & 10:

Un fariber zaynen, brider,
            And, brothers, millions
Miliyonen teg un nekht.
            of days and nights have passed.
Un itst, yidn, zayt ir vider
            And now, Jews, you are again
Pares diner, Pares knekht
            Pharaoh’s servants, Pharaoh’s slaves.

Folk! Ver vet dikh itst bafrayen,
            People! Who will free you now?
Vu iz er, dayn sheyner held?
            Where is your wonderful hero?
Af dayn veynen, af dayn shrayen,
            Over your tears and your cries
Ver vet tsiyen itst zayn shverd
            Who will now draw his sword?

— — — —

Ven du vilst kayn keytn trogn,
            If you do not want to wear chains
Zay aleyn dayn sheyner held!
            Be your own wonderful hero!
Nit nor mentshn,- shteyner klogn
            Not only people—the very stones are groaning
In der vister shklafnvelt!
            In the barren world of slavery.

And then, ‘my brothers’, a new Pesach will come. There’s more, but dayenu. It’s enough.

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Three Encounters with Mani Leib

Three Encounters with Mani Leib
by Solomon Simon
Di Prese, Buenos Aires, Nov. 14, 1953.

א

More than a year ago I invited the poet Mani Leib to a graduation ceremony at a Sholem Aleichem school. I was surprised that he did not immediately accept. He would usually be eager to come to shul ceremonies. One time he said to my wife:

“My biggest competitor in the schools is Avrom Reyzen. He is even invited to school ceremonies more often than me!”

When I met him at the school celebration I asked him:

“How can it be, Mani Leib, that you have lost your enthusiasm for coming to our shul ceremonies?”

He gave a sigh:

“Take a look at me, Khaver Simon. I am an old man by now, soon to be seventy. A Jew my age should be full of wisdom and Torah and should have an established path. He should come to his grandchildren with complaints, demanding to know why they are not walking in his ways, why they are not keeping God’s commandments. I ask you, what are my ways? What are my commandments that I would have them keep? “I am left in a wasteland, dried out from an unrooted life.”

We sat in a back corner of the noisy hall and talked as though no one else was there. I said to him:

“You will pardon me, Mani Leib, I think it’s just your mood. You talk as though you are reciting a poem. Of all people, you surely have nothing to reproach yourself for. What do you mean, “I am left in a wasteland, dried out from an unrooted life”? You are a poet with deep roots in the folk. You have taken the language of the marketplace, the kitchen and the workshop and made it sing hymns. The whole people has gained eloquence through your poetry.”

“I will answer the way you would. ‘The first point I shall address first, and the next point next.’ Yes, “I am left in a wasteland, dried out from an unrooted life” is taken from a poem. From the sonnet, My Tradition.

Mayn Mesore – My Tradition

My great grandfathers’ lineage is two-sided.
They poured into each other like separate veins
feeding the same river, then just as soon divided
back into two streams, in a far corner of Ukraine.

One stream of ordinary Jews, their children playing
– peace be with you- among gentiles in the market square.
The other— rich as the Torah’s truth— raised on sayings
of sages; fine satin frock coats they used to wear.

Which of these two tendencies shall I bequeath
to my children’s children? For when God’s hand
separated the streams, I was left in a wasteland

between them, dried out from an unrooted life–
To Torah and the market I am equally foreign,
and dry wasteland itself is my tradition.

“That’s the poem. But it is not just a mood, as you say. For me it is a years-long experience that has now been formed into a poem. It is a part of my being. Or the other way around.

“OK, I will admit, he went on, I agree with you. I have a share in transforming the language from the market, workshop and kitchen into hymn. The exploited craftsman, the repressed Jewish woman, the apprentice, and the serving girl have become eloquent through us Yiddish poets and are have made it out into the wider world. So, they went out into the wider world, became spellbound by the earth in her fullness, and left us behind, abandoned. Left Mother Yiddish standing there, embarrassed. Ashamed of her own flesh and blood.

“Listen to what kind of a language is spoken here in shul at the celebration of this occasion, waving his hand sadly, whether by the parents or the children. Mother Yiddish is debased here. And there, across the ocean, no one is left — killed off. What remains is locked in jail. And in Israel? In the Jewish State, Mame Lozhn is seen as an outside language, a foreign tongue.

“Warsaw is gone, Brownsville is silent, my dear Simon, Jerusalem does not want our Mother Yiddish. Yehupetz, Kazrilivke, and Berdichev have been put in jail, surrounded by goyishe guards. And we, Jewish poets in America, went into raptures over the richness of Yiddish. We dressed it up and adorned it with all kinds of literary airs and jewelry. Momma Yiddish has become a Grande Dame. But we have neglected the family. The whole family left her, does not want to know her, or looks at her as at a stranger. We Yiddish writers sit here near Momma Yiddish, alone, without sons, without daughters, and without grandchildren. Was it worth it?”

He spoke quietly as if he were talking to himself. It was the first time I had heard him talk about such matters. Usually he talked about literature in general, rarely about himself and about the future fate of the Yiddish language and literature. I answered him:

“Mani Leib, suppose that everything you are saying is true, even. Truly great creations are never lost. You will not convince me with you despair. Yes, it was worth it!”

“You’re probably right, it was worth it. But even if our creations are preserved, and I am not at all so sure they will be, it is no consolation. I will be translated into a classical English, into a prophetic-sounding Lozhn Koydesh, or a wooden Modern Hebrew. It will be read by generations who are not rooted in my Jews, my Ukrainian Jews, in these seven Jews:

Seven Jews ride and ride
ride to the yearly fair,
bringing raisins, bringing almonds,
hoping to sell them there.

The roads are rainy, the night black.
The wheels of the wagons clack.
Black and rainy are the roads,
their horses barely drag their loads…

See, I cannot be satisfied with beneficiaries. I want heirs, heirs of those Jews and an heir of mine.

That evening he read that very poem, “Seven Jews,” and the whole cycle of Elijah the Prophet poems from his book Wonder of Wonders. After the reading, over a cup of coffee, I said to him:

“So, you did not read just for beneficiaries. A poet only reads like that when he knows that he has his [own] listeners. It’s more evidence against your pessimism.”

He looked at me sharply:

“In your writing, which cuts like a knife, it seems you want to rebuild our lives and we want to make a fool of you. Maybe you are fooling yourself. Three listeners I know for sure I had. Maybe another couple out of the forty in the crowd. The rest are like estranged children who came to their father’s for a holiday. The father makes Kiddush. The children put on yarmulkes, listen with the longing and pleasure of their youths. Usually, they do not answer with an Amen. If they do, it is only a bit of nostalgia. The heirs are no Kiddush makers. Their children, absolutely not.”

ב

I saw Mani Leib a second time this year in the Arbeter Ring’s Liberty Sanitorium. It was Erev Rosh Hashone. My wife and I traveled to the mountains for the week of Rosh Hashone. Before we even unpacked, my wife told me to hurry:

“Let’s go the Sanitorium, we’ll see Mani Leib and Daniel Charney.

We went to him for a short visit. We arranged to come for a longer visit a day after Rosh Hashone. He was very happy with us. My wife went in to Daniel Charney first, and I went to Mani Leib first.

I found him sitting in bed with a thermometer in his mouth. His face lit up when he saw me. He indicated a chair and gestured that in a minute he would take the thermometer out.

As he took out the indicator and glanced at the degrees of temperature it revealed, he waved his hand: “What a bother! It’s normal anyway. Yesterday, one degree higher. Today, normal.”

“How are you doing?” I asked.

“Wait a minute, Simon, don’t be in such a hurry. Before I tell you how I am doing, tell me the truth. Did you come to visit me or Daniel?”

“Both,” I answered. “But I came to you first.”

“I’m glad. Don’t laugh at me. I am jealous of Daniel. Everyone comes to him first, and only then to me. I know it’s foolish but nonetheless, human.”

I smiled. “How can you compare to Daniel? After all, he is a resident here. He has set up a home. Two rooms—a bedroom and a workroom. You are a guest here. In a couple of weeks you will be back home. Few people even know you are here. They find out you are here only when they come to see Daniel. So they visit you, too.”

He laughed:

“Litvak objectivity and common sense. You’re right.”

“So now tell me, how are you doing?”

“Who knows? They say I am a sick man. This winter I got pneumonia. My old illness paid a call on me— the one that lies in wait for a man so many years without even a hint of sickness, and then ambushes him. Nu, I feel fine. But the doctors say that I have to be here six more weeks. Meanwhile, I am looking over my poems. Putting together a two-volume set. I’m telling you, this is the best and most peaceful place to revise writing and reflect on ideas.”

“It’s high time you put out your poems in a couple of volumes!”

“What’s the hurry? As long as the poems are here, that’s the main thing. The few real readers keep the poems when they are published in newspapers. The rest? These good readers do not even pretend to grasp the true meaning of the poems. It’s a way for them to pass the time a little. Yes, you have been writing a lot lately. Strangely, I’ve started writing a lot in my old age, too.”

“You know, Mani Leib, I thought that since I have time here, and you obviously aren’t busy, that when I come back the day after tomorrow I would read you ten pages or so from a new book I’m writing. A folkloric novel. In such a work, the main thing is the language. I’d like you, with your ear, to hear it. I know you would have corrections.”

“But you won’t follow my advice.”

“Maybe yes and maybe no. But when it comes to language, you have an ear that catches the least false note, the smallest insincerity. It would be interesting to me, and a gauge to measure my language by how often you interrupt my reading, as you tend to do.”

“So, good, bring the manuscript!”

Sunday I read for him for fifteen minutes. Of course he interrupted me often, as per his usual custom. I stopped.

“And, and, go on?”

“What, do you want me to read you the whole book?”

He laughed:

“No, but I want you to read until I catch you— as I catch all folklorists— “with a bench grown up in the middle of woods and fields.” In these ten pages there’s no bench.

“With a bench grown up in the middle of woods and fields?” I asked, astonished.

“Yes, that’s the name I’ve given to nonsense in literature. Often, nonsense and illogical situations come up in folkloric stories. A writer who writes folk stories lets himself go on as follows:

It was Friday afternoon. Reb Mordechai went into the woods to pray Mincha, [the afternoon prayers]. He crept deep into the woods and set about praying. He prayed out loud, and when he got to the eighteen blessings, he closed his eyes, deep in prayer. When he finished the Shimen Esre he looked around and did not know where he was. He had completely forgotten which way was East and which way was West. He quickly finished Mincha and set off on his way. He had to get to town by Shabes. He walked and walked and the woods got thicker, the trees wider. The woods were so thick that it was dark in the middle of the day. He went on until he had grown very tired. In his fatigue, he sat down on a bench.

“You understand me, Simon. The writer needed a bench, so a bench grew for him in the middle of the woods. And do you think, it’s only in folklore that a bench grows up in the middle of the woods? Among our greatest poets and prose writers there are words, expressions, sentences, whole paragraphs that are utterly illogical, nonsense: ‘A bench, grown up in the middle of the woods’!”

“You know, Mani Leib it’s worth the visit to you just for that bench. But I am working too hard. Let’s talk a little.”

“Wait, have patience,” he answered me. “Read me the two paragraphs about Tzedakah [charity] again.”

I began reading:

Jews, remember! A man does not become poorer by giving Tzedakah. Whoever has compassion on poor people, God has compassion on him. Also a man must remember that it’s a “galgl hakhoyzer”; the wheel of fortune turns: Now he is down and soon I, or my child, will be down. And those who have compassion on him, he will be treated with compassion. One most donate to the poor with an open heart, in good spirits and with joy.

And if a poor man asks you for a donation and you have nothing to give, you should not yell at him, and not, heaven forbid, raise your voice to him. You should speak to him gently and explain that you want to give but you are not able to. One may not refuse a poor man when he asks for a donation and send him away empty-handed, even if you can only give him the smallest little thing- a dried fig.

I stopped. Mani Leib said to me:

“You took these two paragraphs just as is from a book in the holy tongue. They are not yours.”

“True,” I answered, “it’s from Yoyre Deye, Halokhes Tsedoke.”

“From where?”

“From the Shulkhen Oyrekh, the laws concerning charity.”

“So, I sensed it right away.”

“Which is not allowed?”

“Heaven forbid. Just the opposite. By all means. It’s good when one can draw from the old wells, the Jewish sources. This is one of my biggest regrets. In my old age I discovered that in Jewish knowledge I am an ignoramus. In world poetry, an expert; in world literature a scholar; about Judaism, a dope. I never made the effort. On the contrary, I thought it wasn’t necessary.”

I answered him:

“In your poems [it] is not apparent that Jewish knowledge is lacking, but the reverse. It seems to me few Yiddish poets use Hebraisms as skillfully as you do. You have no ‘benches grown up in the middle of the woods’”.

“That is not erudition, it just comes from a passion for language. But a truly great Jewish poet has to be a scholar, or to become a scholar. I am far from it, which is why I complain in my sonnet, “Mayn Mesore”:

To Torah and market I am equally foreign,
and the dry wasteland itself is my tradition.

“Maybe I would not be in such a dry wasteland if I had been more deeply rooted in Torah!”

I answered, annoyed:

“Listen, Mani Leib, it’s not true. What are you talking about, there is no dry wasteland in your poems. Your poetry is full of juice, of Jewish analogies and metaphors, and with…”

He interrupted me:

“I did not say, Simon, that my poetry is a dry wasteland. I am enough of an aficionado not to look down on my own poetic work. But, for us, the poem became poem, only poem, and nothing but poem. A poem for the sake of a poem, that is not duty-bound to anything. The poem is not instilled in the framework of everyday Jewish life. Yes, a genuine poem, a true poem, but only for the sake of the poem, not grown up intrinsically out of the demands of an integrated Jewish life. It’s really hard for a poet to write genuine poetry within the framework of a coherent life path. Yet I believe that I, Mani Leib, could have accomplished it, but I did not have the necessary Jewish knowledge for such a challenge. That is what I meant by the line, “And dry wasteland itself is my heritage,” but I still should thank God that no bench grew up in the middle of a thick wood in my work.”

I realized it had gotten late. There were only a few more minutes to go in and see Daniel Charney and give him my greetings. I said goodbye to Mani Leib and we agreed to see each other when he came back to the city.

ג

He did not live past the month of Tishrei. He died suddenly. Unexpectedly. He died when his family came to take him home— the doctors said he had gotten that much better. He got a hemorrhage and he was gone.­­­­­­

I went to the funeral in the great “Forverts” Hall. Someone told me that Mani Leib lay in his casket in a blue suit, a white shirt, a red necktie, his hair combed in a part and his cheeks rouged. I stood at a distance and did not even want to go stand near the coffin for a while. I wanted the living face of Mani Leib to remain in my memory, not the dead reflection ­of his face.

As is our custom, we chose a speaker, who would himself give a eulogy for the dead, and call up the other speakers. I listened as the speaker called out:

“And now so-and-so will give a speech.”

I heard a buzzing in my ear:

“Oh, Mani Leib, Mani Leib, do you hear? “A bench has grown up in the middle of a thick wood.” You would not have said it that way. You would have said, “And now so-and-so will deliver a eulogy for the departed.” Why didn’t they learn from you how to guard the Yiddish language— that itself would have brought them to the Jewish path, and they would deliver a eulogy for you, and not make speeches??”
But that was not the only “bench grown up in the middle of a thick wood.” Later I heard something even worse. A poet stood up and began reading the poem Mani Leib had left as an inscription for his gravestone:

Do ligt Hersh Itses zun,…

I did not want to listen further. I now understood why he said to me, “For us my poetry became too much, ‘the poem, only the poem, that is not responsible to anything’.”

Yiddish poets stand up and one of them reads a poem that says:

“Here lies Hirsh, son of Isaac, with shards on his eyes,
buried in shrouds like a fine Jew. He was
in our world as though he had just arrived on foot
to the yearly fair from his far-flung settlement

No-Place,…”

when the body is dressed up in a blue outfit with a red tie– is there a more blatant lie? He hit it on the head! Literature means nothing in daily life. A poem is just beautiful speech, which does not have to be complied with. The words, the thoughts are written and said out loud in order to sound good, for the sake of the rhyme, for beauty.

Here you have it, shrouds in the poem, and a blue suit in the coffin. If he had thought a poem was something binding, that a poem is a part of the poet, then either they would not have dressed him up like a country squire, or else they would not have recited the poem.

Now I felt the poet’s complaint more deeply:

“To Torah and market I am equally foreign,
and the dry wasteland itself is my tradition.”

—————-
(translation, by D. R. Forman, March, 2017)
—————-

Comments on “Three Encounters with Mani Leib”

I became aware of the 1953 article, “Dray Bagegenishn mitn Dikhter Mani Leib” through Ruth Wisse’s book, A Little Love in Big Manhattan. I am fond of this piece, partly because I am proud of and interested in my grandfather’s ties with the Yiddish poets of his era in general and with Mani Leib in particular. Their friendship resulted my improbable possession of a treasure—a copy of Mani Leib’s Sonnets inscribed to my grandfather by Leib’s widow, one of the few physical artifacts of my zeidy’s life I own.

The article is also of some general interest. The conversations reported here show how far the great lyric poet Mani Leib had traveled from Di Yunge’s (the artistic group The Young Ones’) original aesthetic commitment to ‘art for art’s sake’. Now, in his old age, Leib yearned for a sense of integrity or wholeness, for life and art, thought and behavior, self and community to be of a piece. Di Yunge had once boasted of not having any literary antecedents. This now seemed less like something to boast about in the keenly-felt absence of literary heirs. My grandfather, being the Yiddish secularists’ great proponent of tradition, was well placed to be the recipient of this questioning and these concerns.

The piece is a bit long and the language, in places, a bit stilted. Much of the latter is undoubtedly the fault of my translation. But, the Yiddish is also a little stiffer than some of my grandfather’s writing. I assume it was written hastily (what was the publication lag from NY to a Buenos Aires newspaper in the 1950s?), and with an eye to honest recount rather than literary perfection. At points Leib’s voice seems a little too close to my grandfather’s own voice. But there is also a moment when Leib makes fun of him, parrying Simon’s argument with a pompous holy-tongue-infused Yiddish. In that moment and a few others, their friendship comes through warmly and clearly.

Libery Sanatorium

Changes large, small, for the better or not.

I’ve been posting less often again. While the world goes to hell in a big way, it has been a time of small changes in my life, changes that might or might not add up to something larger soon. Perhaps it’s just the anticipation that comes with the last couple of weeks of winter, but it seems like more than that. Meanwhile, it is clear that this blog, without my having consciously decided or said so, has been going from a regular and important part of my activity to a less regular and more peripheral one.

Several occasions over the last month might have provided fruitful material for a blog post or two, had I given them my time and attention. I might have chosen to write about immigration. Yes, the “ban” is a Jewish issue, and our perspective matters, and we must speak out. I also recently took a temporary part-time job reading applications for Cornell. It is striking how many of these over-achieving students are children of immigrants, particularly from south and east Asia, but from elsewhere as well. One of the questions on the application is what languages are spoken in the home. When a language other than English is listed, the parents were born abroad. Despite our current more accepting attitudes and the lip-service we pay to multiculturalism, it still seems to be two generations and out for heritage languages.

I might have written about my visiting friends in Rochester where I was impressed to see how my old class, still being taught by the wondrous Deborah Rothman, is now actually reading Singer’s The Brothers Ashkenazi together. Then I returned for a conversation about The Zelmenyaners, the Moyshe Kulbak book that people are reading in conjunction with the Yiddish Book Center’s book club. We talked about the difference in experience of reading even a small portion of that in Yiddish, compared with the English. Their impressive energy, reading two family epics, has me wondering what I am accomplishing in my own puttering here.

I have also been continuing to watch my own little Yiddish Ithaca group as it does not transform over time into a larger and more viable entity. We are changing days this spring because of a time conflict. I fear that will diminish our small remnant to a remnant of a remnant, and have started to question whether this is the best use of my time. Or, the reverse. Perhaps with redoubled efforts and/or a changed emphasis we could now get a better turnout, and the creativity that critical mass would enable.

I have returned to my work at smoothing the rough edges on my translation of Dos Kluge Shnayderl, and that, at least, is going well.

Yesterday, I idly wandered into a poetry reading and it turned out that all three poets were also translators. One of them is local and seemingly eager to talk translation theory, which he teaches nearby. So that could become a useful connection for me. Then a friend posted in facebook this morning about her Binghamton, NY talk next week about Yiddish modernist poet Dvoyre Vogel [for more about Vogel, click here, or here]. Her announcement promises some Yiddish, and also “Hegel, Heidegger, Benjamin, Derrida, and Modernist texts.” Oy vey!

My zeidy warned me in 1932 that this would not be easy. In his article Iberzetsung un Dikhtung he says: “At first glance it does seem that translation is very simple. The writer has a finished text. All he has to do is to take one word at a time as it is written. But words are not dead things made up of vowels and consonants. Words are symbols that conceal images and this is where the translator’s difficulties begin.” He goes on to say that even a simple word like ‘table’ (tish, shulkhen) evokes different mental images of different tables when given in English or Yiddish or Hebrew. He doesn’t even begin to get into the sounds of the words (so crucial when translating poetry) or their secondary meanings and the associations that those bring up. I have feared and avoided critical theory, not just because I feel inferior and at a disadvantage, having never done university coursework in literature, but also because as a translator I am already on shaky and complicated ground before I consider the philosophical and deep linguistic, political and historical ways that words are used to make meaning. But I might go to that talk anyway.

There are two other things I did not want to let pass without blogging about. First, unbelievably and yet utterly predictably, overt antisemitism has reared its ugly head in Rochester. A Jewish cemetery was desecrated, and then less than a week later a bomb threat called in to the Brighton JCC. Such is life in America under Republican rule.

I’ve thought and thought and thought about my friends, and have not known what to say. I’ve thought and thought about how three and a half years ago I first walked into the little room in that JCC with Yiddish books all around the walls– the room that gave me back my life. Or took it, depending on how one views the madness I’ve enveloped myself in ever since. I’ve thought, and I have no special insight to offer at all. Only love for my dear friends and teacher and community, and the germ of an even stronger determination to keep at it. If a dozen old people struggling one sentence at a time to read a book written 80 years ago actually pose a threat to these racists, then dafke, by all means, let us read.

I also recently received a sweet, beautiful, long letter from a prominent Yiddishist, someone who has made major contributions to Yiddish and Jewish studies, who took the time to tell me, book by book and in rich detail, about how important Solomon Simon’s stories had been to his childhood. How generous it was to share those memories and the feelings (clearly still vivid all these decades later) that went with them. There really is no way to know how our actions, big and small prepare the soil for the future. So, I am leaving Tongue’s Memory right here where it is and will keep checking in.

I have been working part time, as I mentioned, and I have another gig coming up. It’s only a few hours, helping out with a digitizing project, but it marks the first paid job I will have that uses Yiddish in the work. I also have had a short translation accepted for publication that could come out as early as this summer. Another, larger project is in the works. I had been thinking that this might be a good time to say goodbye to this blog, which was intended to be a record of my process of coming to Yiddish as a beginning student, later in life. Though I am still far from competent, I’m also clearly not a beginner anymore.

But no, there will be no goodbyes. I will be around, just not as often. Let’s hope it’s because I’m off doing useful things with the time I have and using the voice that tongue’s memory has given me.

Screen Capture Debora Vogel Project.png

Screen capture from a video project about Dvoyre Vogel’s poetry. You can see the video here: https://vimeo.com/184893390

A Yidisher Shrayber in Yidn-Land

When I feel I have too much to handle, I often add something. I trade the bad feeling of not having gotten my task done because I’m not diligent or organized enough, for the good feeling of just getting starting on a task. Of course this just ramps up the whole cycle. Whether I would do better to stick to one thing at a time is moot. It is like asking whether I would be more productive if I were a different person. But if Robert Benchley is right, then I am actually optimizing my output: “Any one can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.”

Recently, in order not to do what I’m ‘supposed to’ be doing, I began to forage for what other people wrote about Solomon Simon. Makes sense, since I don’t even have time to read what he wrote himself.

So in an idle moment I went to the Historical Jewish Press collection, digitized at the University of Tel Aviv [link here]. I entered Solomon Simon’s name in the subject field rather than the author field. The database is clunky, but I eventually figured it out. I got only a few results, and some of those were just a one-line entry in a list of recently published books.

But I did find an interesting-looking article from 1964 in an Israeli Yiddish monthly called Lebns Fragn (not to be confused with a paper of the same name from interwar Poland). It begins:

“It is rare indeed for a Yiddish writer who visits Israel from abroad to take an interest in the Arbeter Ring’s Yiddish afternoon schools, and even rarer for one to happen to write about it. So we wish to mention with gratitude the well-known Yiddish writer Dr. Solomon Simon, who visited Israel a year ago and showed a warm interest in our children who study Yiddish.”

It mentions that Simon visited the Arbeter Ring’s summer colony, and then continues: “After returning to America he published a long article about his visit to Israel in the journal Culture and Education in January, 1964, several excerpts from which we will give here…”

Hah! Joke’s on me. I pause in collecting his journal articles, only to be pointed to a journal article I did not know about. I want to read about what other people thought of him and instead the article quotes him extensively in his own words! You can go, but you cannot leave.

————————–

Mir iz gut. I have it good. So says my Zeidy on his way to visit the Kinder Koloniye. It’s a beautiful day, and a feeling of peace issues from the surrounding fields and trees as they drive into the country. This was his second trip to Israel.

Writing about my grandfather’s attitude towards the Jewish State, I have emphasized his misgivings about militarism and state power. Next up on my own reading list are several sections of his book Jews among the Nations, in which he spells out his “Diaspora Nationalism” stance more fully. But it is important not to oversimplify his skepticism about Zionism. He had a brother in Israel. He loved the people of Israel and fretted about them. And he was amazed at many of the blessings inherent in the Jewish State, even as he felt betrayed and wounded by its treatment of Yiddish language and culture.

Also important to realize is that pacifism and his skepticism about whether state power could be wielded morally were not the sum total of his critique. He was just as critical of the effects Zionism had on Jews in the U.S., who instead of creating a self-sufficient and fully realized Jewish culture in America, were always looking to Israel. He had originally hoped for something in the U.S. analogous to the old world, except without the oppression. Jews would live near each other and create communities, with their own cultural practices, and their literature in their own language. Of course by 1964, it was quite obvious that (with the exception of the Orthodox) this was not going to happen.

But these disappointments were far from his mind on the day of this trip to the Yiddish summer colony in Israel. In fact, he was struck by an unfamiliar and liberating feeling that he could experience only in that tiny country. The sensation of not being in the minority.

As I said, he begins the article admiring the landscape he is being driven through on his way there. “…peace pours out from the fields and gardens. I forget my resentments and problems. Jewish territory spread out as far as eye can see, with Jews sitting peacefully on their land without fear. And I have it good. Ikh bin itst in Yidn-Land un ikh for zen Yidishe kinder in a zumer-kemp. A Yidisher shrayber fort tsu Yidishe kinder.”

The difficulty in translating these last two simple sentences into English marks the distance between me and my grandfather, and the distance between him and what the world was becoming.

The first sentence is easier. It can more or less accurately be given as, “I am now in Jew-Land, traveling to see Jewish children in a summer camp.” In context, it reflects that sensation of being in a majority, in a place where security is not dependent on someone else. The Jews sit peacefully on their farms. By contrast, where he had grown up, Jews were forbidden to own farmland, by law. The towns might feel relatively safe, but when one ventured into the country it was clear it was not our country. A summer camp seems like an ordinary pleasure to us, but it was an extraordinary pleasure to him.

But the second sentence cannot be straightforwardly rendered in English. He loves visiting and speaking with children, but there’s something else in there. It is dependent on the double meaning of the word ‘Yidish’ to mean both ‘Jewish’ and ‘Yiddish’. A yidisher shrayber fort tsu yidishe kinder. “A Yiddish/Jewish writer going to see Jewish/Yiddish children”. These Jewish children are going to Yiddish camp. This writer writes in Jewish. And it reflects backwards onto the first sentence. For this moment, his national self and his writer self and his religious self and his surroundings are all in harmony. For this moment he can hold on to the sensation, or the illusion, or the wish that Yiddish and Jewish are one thing, as they had been for the majority of Jews for a thousand years.

shloime_in_israel_teaching_1963

Solomon Simon Bibliography in Progress

Since I admitted in my last post that I am never going to identify and gather everything my grandfather ever wrote, there’s no longer any reason not to share this information that I have been gathering over the past year.

Here are all of Solomon Simon’s published non-fiction writings I’ve been able to identify and locate so far, outside of his twenty published books. [Those marked with * I know where they are but do not yet have a copy]. There is no better way I know of to give an indication of the range of his interests and the scale of his output.

This is work in progress. I know of several more articles that I have not yet been able to obtain. My intent, following  a little more research, is to leave out book chapters reprinted in a newspaper or journal once the book was written, but to keep those articles that were raw material for later books. I have also left out the series of pamphlets published for school children that are simply illustrated chapters of his Kinder Yorn fun Yidishe Shraybers.

Finally, I have not yet included his stories. Many of these were published first in Kinder Zhurnal. I have only begun to look at that material.
———

  1. Pamphlets (excluding Montreal schools Kinder Yorn chapter excerpts):

Leyvik’s Golem (1927). Pamphlet. Farlag Yidish Lebn.

Der Goyrl fun Undzere Yiddishistishe Shuln (1956). Pamphlet. Originally published [at least in part?] in Fraye Arbeter Stimme, May 18, 1956.

Dos Meglekhe un Umeglekhe. (1961). Pamphlet. Reprint from Almanakh Yidish.

Mayses fun Agada (with Chaim Shoys). (1936). Published by the Authors.

  1. Chapters in Edited Books

Mayn Yidishkayt: Der Vidui fun a Yidish Inteligent, (1929). Chapter in Yidish Amerike (Ed. Noyakh Shteynberg), pp 175-188.

Peretz Hirshbein der Kinder-Dertsayler, (1941). In Peretz Hirshbein: Tsu Zayn 60tn Geboyrentog. Hirshbein Yubl Komitet, pp. 184 – 192.

A Shmues. (1955). Chapter in, Pinchas Gingold Buch, pp. 299-303.

Nevies un Mlukhe. (1969-1970) Chapter in Hesed L’Avrom: Sefer Hayubl Avrom Golomb. pp. 695-704. Avrom Golomb Yubl Komitet, baym Yivo in Los Angeles.

Di Geshikhte fun a Sholem Aleichem Folkshul, (1972). Chapter published posthumously in Der Derekh fun Sholem Aleichem Institut (Bilingual: English version, Our First Fifty Years). Ed. Shaul Gutman (Saul Godman). The Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute. pp. 71 – 78.

50 Yor Sholem Aleichem Institut, (1972). Chapter published postumously in Der Derekh fun Sholem Aleichem Institut (Bilingual: English version, Our First Fifty Years). Ed. Shaul Gutman (Saul Godman). The Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute. pp. 103 – 109. Originally delivered as a talk, May 18, 1968, at the SAFI Jubilee Conference.

  1. Journal and Newspaper Articles

Piyonern (1923). In Oyfgang 1(2), Feb., pp. 51-55. (Note: Published under the name “S” (samekh) Simon.

In der Bikher Velt (1923). In Oyfgang, 1(2), Feb., pp. 75 – 80. (Note: Published under the name “Shimon Shimonovitz”).

“Oyf Fremd Erd” fun Yud Yud Zinger (1926). In Undzer Bukh,1(1), p.50.

Dray Bikher (1927). In Unzer Bukh, 2(2) pp.179-181.

Vegn Lutskin [“Nemt es iz gut far Aykh”] un Apelboym [“Afn Shvel”] (1928). In Oyfkum, 3(6-7), June-July, pp. 60-61.

“Groys Shtot” fun L. Faynberg (1928). In Oyfkum, 3(8-9), Aug.-Sept., pp. 58 – 60.

Vald Brunem un Andere Dertseylungen fun S. Chester (1928). In Oyfkum 3(8-9), Aug.-Sept., pp 60 – 62.

Lord Byrons “Yidishe Melodies” (1928). In Oyfkum 3(10), October, pp. 42-43.

“Af di Vegn fun Vint”, fun M. Kravets, (1928). In Oyfkum, 3(11), November, pp. 41-42.

Itsik Fefers “Gefunene Funken” , (1928). In Oyfkum, 3(12), December, pp. 41-42.

Alef Katzs Ibezetsung fun Stevensons Oytser Inzl, (1929). In Oyfkum, 4(1), Jan., pp 46-47.

H.G.Wells “Vuhin Geyt Undzer Velt,” (1929). In Oyfkum, 4(2), Feb. pp. 45-47.

Kinder Bikher. (1929). In Oyfkum, 4(3), p. 45.

“Yidn” fun Naftali Gros (1929). In Oyfkum, 4(4), pp. 43-45

Veynpers Nay Bukh LIder (1929) In Oyfkum, 4(6-7) pp. 42-45.

Fir Naye Bikhlekh far Kinder (1929). In Oyfkum 4(8-9), pp. 40-42.

Iberzetsung un Dikhtung: Vegn Dr. Ayzn’s iberzetsung fun Lord Byron’s “Cain”, (1932). Yidish (NY), Friday, July 1, pp. 11-12.

Di Perzenlikhkayt — Shmuel Niger. (1933) In Literarishe Bleter, August 11, pp. 510 – 512.

Yehoash bay der Arbet, (1939). In Der Khaver, Sunday, January 01, pp. 3-12.

Dr. Chaim Zhitlovskis Bukh “Yidn un Yidishkayt” (1941). In Yidishe Shriftn (Ed. Aba Gordon). Vol. 1, pp. 87-97.

*Finf un Tsvantsik Yor Kinder Zhournal. (1944). In Shulblat vol 6, #12, pp. 9-10.

Micah. (1944). In Yidishe Shriftn, vol. 4(4), pp. 412-420.

Frumkayt un Gutkayt: An Ofener Briv tsu Aba Gordin. (1945). In Yidishe Shriftn, vol 5(3), pp, 308-317.

Di Sholem Alechem Shuln un Zayne Problemen. (1946) Di Tsukunft 51(3), March, pp. 197-199.

Bikher un Shrayber (1948). In Yidishe Shriftn, vol. 6(4), pp. 73-80. [note: includes review of “A Gloybn far Ungloybike”]

Kinder Litearatur Oder Literatur far Kinder, (1949). In Bleter far Yidisher Derziung (World Bureau of Jewish Education) June/Sept. pp. 33-39.

Vegn Vayznbergs “Lomdes” (1950). In New Yorker Vokhnblat, Nov. 24, pp. 13-14.

Iberbrokh, (1951). In, Di Tsukunft, Jan., pp. 12-15.

Perzenlekhkayt un Polemishes, (1951). In New Yorker Vokhnblat, Feb. 2, pp. 3 – 5.

Profanatsiye (1951). In New Yorker Vokhnblat, Sept. 28, pp. 25 – 26.

An Entfer tsu Moyshe Vities (1951). In New Yorker Vokhnblat. October 21, p. 10.

Travers Herford—Der Forsher fun di Prushim (1951), in Di Tsukunft, Nov, pp. 435 – 438.

Yidish Vuhin? (1952). In, Di Tsukunft, Sept., pp. 317-323.

*40 Yor Yidish-Veltlekhe Shuln. In Morgn Zhurnal. (Jan 8, 1953).

Dray Bagegenishn Mitn Dikhter Mani Leyb. (1953). In Di Prese (Buenos Aires), November 14.

Tolerents un Frayhayt, (1954), in Yidishe Shriften band 7, pp. 21-30.

Der Eygenartiker Seyfer in TaNaKh (1955). In Der Tsukunft, Feb., pp. 636 – 638.

Abstrakte Etik un Halakha: An Entfer Aba Gordon (1955). In Yidishe Shriftn, 7(3-4), pp. 79 – 87.

Metafizik un Logik: An Entfer tsu di Kritikers fun ‘Tokh Yidishkayt’ (1955). In Zayn (NY), 2(7) November, pp. 18-26.

Farvos Nvies Bloyz Bay Di Yidn? (1956). In, Di Tsukunft, May/June, pp. 233-235.

Der Kateyger, vos iz Gevorn a Saneyger (1956). In, Di Tsukunft, Oct., pp. 383-384.

Historishe Shriften fun Chaim Shoys (1956). In, Di Tsukunft, Dec., pp. 487 – 488.

Teoretish Alts—Praktish Rirt Nisht On Keyn Oys: An ofener briv tsu Zalman Yefroiken, bildungs-direktor fun Arbeter-Ring. In Unzer Shul, March 1959, pp. 5-7.

Kritik (1959). Letter to the Editor. In Der Tsukunft, Oct., p. 433.

Yidishkayt bay ale badingungn. (1962). In Folk un Velt (World Jewish Congress). Vol. 11(113), February, pp. 1-5.

Stires un Sfeykes, (1962). In Tsukunft, 67(10) October, pp. 369-372.

Ultra Ortodoksn, oder Yidishe fundamentalistn in Amerike (1962) In Folk un Velt, October.

’Integrale Yidishkayt’, Ober On Got. In Yidisher Kemfer, Feb 22, 1963, pp. 9-12.

A Briv in Redaktsie, (1968). In Di Tsukunft, 73(1) January, p. 40.

Der Nign fun Lui Goldberg (1968). In Zayn, 14(54), November, pp. 15-17.

  1. Translation

Der Karakter fun Yidishe Traditsie, by Prof. Reuben Gordis (1948) [essay translated from Hebrew into Yiddish by S. Simon]. Yidishe Shriftn, 6(4), pp 16-33.

A Chance Discovery – The Pseudonym

It is not given to you to complete the work…” Rabbi Tarfon

I have spent a fair bit of time over this last year hunting down my grandfather’s published writings, above and beyond those included in his twenty full-length books. At first I found only a few here and there. Most of the easy ways to search were in English, but they yielded little. Then last summer I discovered the Yiddish Periodical Index, and was overwhelmed by the wealth of newspaper and journal articles listed there. Since then, I’ve been locating articles one by one– most from that index but a good many found through other sources. Very soon I’ll be sharing what I’ve found.

As slowly as I have been collecting them, I’ve been even slower to read and translate what I’ve collected. So far I’ve only finished translating two— an article about children’s literature, and the article about the glorification of the military in Israel that I recently shared here. Two down, three more in progress…

I’ve found material from 1920 right up to the year of his death in 1970. Meanwhile, one little detail had been nagging at me. The earliest published nonfiction article I have (1923) lists the author as S. Simon, but the letter S is a samekh ‘ס‘ instead of a shin ‘ש‘. His name on everything else is shin, or Sh. Simon, for Shloime. Perhaps, I thought, at the outset of his career he experimented with the more Americanized version of his name. ‘ס‘ is for ‘Solomon’. Or he could have purposely chosen a different name than the one he would go by in his regular life.

So many Yiddish writers wrote under pseudonyms. At first, this was because it was considered low status to be a writer in Yiddish, rather than in Hebrew or the surrounding European national language. Later, I suppose it was either out of tradition or to keep one’s writerly and tog-teglekh (everyday) identities separate. On the other hand, the author’s initial could simply have been a typo. Or, perhaps, this particular article might not even have been written by my grandfather at all?

So I opened the file to read the article, titled ‘Piyonern’ or Pioneers. It became immediately obvious the article is by him. It is in his style, and deals with some of his main concerns. But in going back to check, something else interesting caught my eye.

The batch of articles it was among had been collected at the NY Public Library, photographing one page at a time. That visit, my partner helped me with my project, using her cell phone camera. But, because she does not know Yiddish, she wanted to make sure that I would know what I had, in case she either took a picture of a wrong page, mistitled, or misfiled an article. So she would first take a picture of the cover or contents page of a journal, then the pages of my grandfather’s article in that issue. For most of these, I stripped off the photo of the cover, once I was sure I had the correct article. But for this particular one, I had retained the cover page along with the article.

I checked it to confirm that the Samekh was on the cover as well as on the article. Then, for whatever reason, I looked at the cover again. Lower down on the list of contributors, I noticed the name of another author, “Shimon Shimonovitz”. He, I immediately realized, was also my grandfather!

Shimonovitz had been his last name at birth. He changed it to Simon when he came here. Also, he had an older brother named ‘Shimon’, but he later used that first name to refer to himself in his autobiography. So it was a literary alter-ego.

My discovery was a complete happenstance. If I had not kept that particular cover in the file, or had not looked back at it again, I never would have noticed the pseudonym. I immediately searched the Yiddish Periodical Index for Shimon Shimonovitz, just in case he wrote other things under that name. But the one I’d found, in the journal Oyfgang in 1923 is the only one listed.

oyfgang-cover

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The work of gathering material can be slow. Sometimes I have to wait around in the Dorot Division of the NY Public Library while they fetch me an old journal from their stacks. Friday, during one such wait, I idly browsed the surrounding shelves. I noticed the Leksikon fun der Nayer Yidisher Literatur, and pulled out the volume with Zeidy’s name. The Leksikon is an incredible resource. I cannot begin to image how much work it was to compile in the era before computers.

Somewhere, there is a hero who has been methodically translating this monumental work and putting it on the web [http://ingeveb.org/blog/eight-volumes-in-dour-maroon-josh-fogel-on-translating-the-leksikon]. Ever since I found out about this, I had been waiting for him to get to Simon, but now it dawned on me that there was no reason I had to wait. I could just read the Yiddish.

The article had some information about my grandfather I did not know. For example, I knew that he had various jobs after he got to the US. It was not news to me that he worked in a cleaners and as a house painter, but I had not known he did a stint as a balegole (wagoner, or driver).

The article also has a long list of organizations he belonged to and journals he wrote for, as well as (and this I knew much less about) those he helped edit. There is even a section with articles that are about him or his work. Presumably they are mostly book reviews. Each of his book titles is listed, along with the publisher and the number of pages. And then, at the end of that long list, there is the offhand comment: “Also published under various pseudonyms.”

under-various-pseudonyms

I had imagined myself, someday in the not very far future, presenting Yivo with a bibliography and a complete set of Simon’s published work outside of his books. I figured they could add it to his archive, and if by chance some Jewish studies scholar 30 years from now wanted to write their dissertation about him, there it would be. Now I know that this can never happen. That my investigation of his work will not be complete.

This is both a liberation and a loss. I originally just wanted to be able to read his books. I had no idea that his ‘outtakes’ would add another fifty articles and at least a dozen stories to that pile. Now I know that I will never know all of it. Which means, in some strange way, I’m back to where I started. I will learn what I can, and read what I can, not out of ambition, but out of love. Whatever I can manage is more than I did before. I learn, and then I learn some more.

Profanation

This article, by Solomon Simon, appeared in the New Yorker Vokhnblat in the fall of 1951. Simon loved the land of Israel and the people of Israel unambivalently, but was extremely ambivalent about the State of Israel. I believe that his skepticism regarding Zionism was one reason his work, other than his writing for children, was marginalized in the United States. A fuller discussion of his relationship to, and ideas about, Israel are in his book Medines Yisroyl un Erets Yisroyl.

The article is also interesting because his ‘piety’ is on full display. He had far more reverence for scripture (though interpreted through his own modern ethical lens) than his fellow Secular Yiddishists of his time.

This translation is not finalized. Please do not quote from or reprint it without permission of the translator, David Forman. Thanks.

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*Profanatsiye (1951). In New Yorker Vokhnblat, Sept. 28, pp. 25 – 26.

When I was in the State of Israel, soon after the War of Independence, I actually felt the glorification of war and war heroes in the air. But I consoled myself with the thought that it was not a deeply rooted feeling. I thought: it is a natural thing, after all, after a war that literally saved the Jewish Settlement from being wiped out, that the army should be idealized, and the fallen war heroes worshipped, above all when the community is small and everyone knew the fallen soldiers personally.

True, here and there I saw obvious signs that the glorification of military power, and a desire for expansion are not incidental. Take, for example, the exhibition by the graduating class in Kibbutz R—H.

The installation that the graduating class as a whole had put together took up the most space. It took up two full walls of the room. A long bench stretched the length of the two walls. On this bench, the children had set up exhibits worked out of clay, which portrayed the development of humanity from the first humans to the present time. Civilized Man stood in the Land of Israel. A magnificent map of the State of Israel and the surrounding area had been formed out of clay, cement and stones. Every bit of land that Jews once ruled was marked with a special stone. Above was a sign: Our Homeland –– מולדתנו.

Extraordinarily interesting were the written works about the prophets. These were thorough and in-depth, despite the fact that the texts were written by fourteen- and fifteen-year-old boys and girls. But the emphasis in all the compositions was laid on those passages in the prophets where there was a call to revenge; where war, victory, and national pride were sung, along with promises of national glory.

A grotesque scene in a religious kibbutz made a disagreeable impression on me:

The crowd sang the passage from Psalms[1]: “The right hand of God is exalted. The right hand of God is triumphant.” The passage was sung a dozen times and each time, when the words, “God’s right hand is exalted” were sung, a redheaded young man along with two other young men with beards and peyes who were standing with rifles, ready to go off to military service, lifted their rifles up in the air, as an illustration of the verse.

A conversation with the children in the public school of Ra’anana also gave me no pleasure.

But I consoled myself that these were individual cases. Against these military sentiments I placed my conversation with the wounded soldier who told me:

“We stood and defended Jerusalem. The rifles were old and they killed few. Suddenly, one evening the news arrived that new rifles with enough ammunition had come. We took the rifles right from the lorries, tearing the paper wrappings off them ourselves. The rifles were smeared with grease, ready to fire. And bullets? Crates full of them. I grabbed my rifle and hugged it to my heart as one would hug a bride. Suddely a storm whipped up in my gut:

Listen, why are you so happy? It is an instrument of destruction, for murdering human beings! But I was, in fact, happy. I could not help myself. With rifles like these in our hands we would sooner stay alive than with the other rifles. And I ask you, who wants to die?”

I consoled myself, hearing the bus driver admit, after the unsuccessful Bialik commemoration and the successful military parade:

“It’s not good and it’s not right that a military parade should captivate the whole community and only a bare quorum should come to Bialik’s commemoration. It hurts my ears to hear of it. We should blush, we deserve to be ashamed.”

In the face of each sign of militarism and chauvanism, I sought the old Jewish virtues of compassion and reverence for the spiritual—sought and, in the end, found them. I guarded myself against making generalizations. I took the mood of militarism and chauvanism, which was so blatant that you could feel it with your hand, for a temporary apparition. I remonstrated with myself:

These are our heymish, good-hearted Jews, the same Jews that you know from the bygone shtetls in the Jewish Pale of Settlement. They looked at war with disgust and horror. These are, after all, the children of those Jews about whom Sholem Aleichem wrote, saying that in war he did not want to shoot over towards the enemy, because he might, Heaven forbid, kill someone. So, now, when it was necessary, they took a rifle in hand. But to glorify the rifle? Nonsense! These cannot be my exalted Jews, these pious ones, who lift rifles up in the air when they sing a verse of the Psalms?

— OK, the Jewish rabbis are still a long way away from the Christian bishops who stood at the fronts of armies. The heirs of Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yitschak Elchanan, the Vilner Gaon, and Rabbi Yisroel Salanter will not become generals overnight.

But now I was shocked. I received a present from the State of Israel—a little Book of Psalms, a booklet the size of an old “bentsherl”[2]. Three inches wide and twice as long. Such booklets are usually printed as presents for children. The psalms cannot be read without a magnifying lens. It’s nothing more than a plaything. It is beautifully bound. The front cover is adorned with gold leaf, and the whole booklet is illustrated. The illustrations are what shocked me. Such profanation of the psalms’ text I have never seen in any language. To print a Book of Psalms with such illustrations is only possible in an atmosphere of extreme militarism and chauvinism.

The illustrations bring the text of the psalms to the present day. This is not a fault. On the contrary, from a pedagogical standpoint it is a virtue. Jews have always made the texts and heroes of the Tanakh contemporary and transmitted them “to the children in the cradle”. From an education standpoint, therefore, some of the illustrations are not bad at all. For example, on page 152 there is an illustration of the verse: “Many have pressed me from my youth, and still they have not overcome me (Psalm 129:2).” The picture shows how the White Paper (the document England issued against the Jewish Settlement in Israel) was burned, while a group of young people danced a hora around the flames that devoured the shameful document.

The passage “to take revenge upon the nations (Psalm 149:7)” is effectively and cleverly illustrated—a picture of smoking chimneys in a concentration camp.

These illustrations are militaristic in places, but the passages are not falsified. Even [when] according to the spirit of the whole chapter they are not completely true. For example, for the verse “He trains my hand for war, so a copper bow is bent by my hand (Psalm 18:35),” the illustration is: Two soldiers, one with an ordinary rifle, and the second with a machine gun. It’s not in the spirit of the psalm, but it’s not as bad as it might have been.

A little worse is the illustration of the verse: “He will rain hot coals on the wicked, fire and pitch and a burning wind will be their portion to drink (their cup; Psalm 11:6).” The picture does not show a rain of fire and pitch, but airplanes flying and dropping bombs on the enemy. One may look askance at this interpretation, but it is not scandalous.

There are several more such illustrations to which exception could be taken: Psalms with tanks, canons, and airplanes? But pedagogically speaking they could be defended by splitting hairs.

But now we come to illustrations that are openly militaristic, chauvinistic, and vulgar, and that profane the text:

“Because God will help Zion and will build up the cities of Judah and they will dwell there and inherit it, and the children of His servants will have it for a possession (Psalm 69:35-36).”

These words are the border of a map, which encompasses the length of Syria and in breadth from Transjordan to the sea. An overtly imperialistic map.

A still worse illustration is of the verse from Psalm 27. Who of us does not remember this Psalm of David “The Lord is my light,” that we used to say the whole month of Elul? The verse, “Though war should rise up against me, I will nevertheless be sure (verse 3).” It means because God protects me. Rashi interprets this verse— I am secure from danger as it is said earlier in the first verse: “God is my fortress, my strength.” Ibn Ezra interprets the verse in two ways: The first is as Rashi interprets it. The second interpretation is that the phrase “With that I am secure,” belongs with the following verse— that the psalmist David is sure that his prayer, for him to have the merit to be in God’s house, will come true. Naftali Gross interprets: “If a war should rise up against me, even then will I be secure.”

What does the illustration show? The artist depicts a soldier stopped, half kneeling, holding a rifle with a bayonet, ready for battle. The interpretation, “with that, I am secure,” with that, meaning with the rifle in my hand I am secured from danger.

Can there be a greater falsification and profanation than that?

“Israel, trust in the Lord. He is their help and their shield (Psalm 115:9).” The illustration is: A tank and on top above the tank, the Ten Commandmants!

Another such delightful illustration is for the passage, “God the Lord is the strength of my help; [he] has protected my head on the day of war (140:8).” The illustration: A soldier holds a Torah scroll in his left hand. His right hand is held up in the air and in it is a rifle.

The Book of Psalms is published by a press with the name Sinai (no more and no less), in Tel-Aviv.

I confess, I was shocked, when I leafed through the booklet. Have we come this far? That is to say, we are not just satisfied with the necessity of militarism but we are making a cult out of it.

I do not know if the press is a commercial or a private one. It may be that publishing it is the undertaking of one canny shopkeeper who simply sensed a few pennies of earnings. Even if this is a private undertaking it still saddens the heart. It means, after all, that the spiritual atmosphere is so poisoned that it paid to print such a profanation of the Psalms. And who knows? It could actually still be that it is a community publisher.

Regardless, the appearance of this Book of Psalms may not be met with silence. The Jewish community must know about this profanation.

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[1] From Psalm 118:16. All scriptural quotations in the article are given first in Hebrew, then in the author’s Yiddish translation. I have omitted the Hebrew.

[2] Bentsherl—a small booklet containing the blessings to be recited after a meal.

sinai

I do not know whether these are the cover and title page of the specific booklet Simon describes, or a later booklet by the same publisher.