In this post I give some brief background on how I came to be learning Yiddish, and then talk about folk stories and their place in my grandfather’s writings. One fascinating aspect of folk stories is how they can be universal and particular at the same time.
My inspiration for wanting to study Yiddish was my Zeidy, Shloime (Solomon) Simon. My adored and adoring grandfather wrote a score of full-length books. He died when I was ten, leaving a huge hole and many happy memories, but also his stories. Some of these, such as The Wandering Beggar, The Wise Men of Helm, and More Wise Men of Helm (the only book he wrote first in English), along with a memoir and a condensed bible geared for young children, were accessible to me.
Of these, my favorites were the Chelm stories, based on Jewish folk stories about a town full of fools. I read them avidly, not just as a child, but again later, and yet again to my own children when the time came. These stories involve a cast of characters in a Jewish shtetl who, for example, build a watermill on top of a mountain, and try to capture the moon in a barrel of borscht. Among my (many) favorites of these stories were A Dead Man who Talks, about Avrom the woodcutter, who falls from a tree and insists that he is dead, and Go Close the Door. In that story, Shloime the Scientist and his wife make a deal that whoever talks first has to close the door, which has blown open in a winter wind. Robbers come in and take all their belongings, but neither husband or wife is willing to talk in order to stop them. Later, a door-to-door barber comes in and, because he won’t speak to stop him, ends up shaving Shloime’s beard— a catastrophe for an observant Jew.
The majority of his books, however, were never translated into English. I always intended – no, not intended, vowed, to learn to read them in the original Yiddish some day.
That day has begun, but I didn’t get here in a straight line. I studied German for two years in college, because when I went to college there were no Yiddish classes. I chose German because the majority of Yiddish words derive from German roots, and I hoped this would help when I finally got my chance. I had already learned a tiny bit of Hebrew as a child preparing for my Bar Mitzvah. Though I was never fluent, I managed to keep much of the German I learned, since my brother Bill moved to Germany. Though I unfortunately visit rarely, it’s enough to keep the sound of the language in my head.
The ability to sound out Hebrew letters and to recognize some German words gave me a foundation, but years went by and I never built on it. After college, I became a calligrapher. When that career ended I was briefly unoccupied before starting graduate school, and for a few weeks, I tried to translate one of my grandfather’s books by looking up one word at a time in Uriel Weinreich’s Yiddish-English/English-Yiddish Dictionary. I got almost thirty pages in, then gave up. There were babies to take care of, and my next career to pursue.
One day, about seven years ago, I happened to pick up a book titled A Flock of Fools. It contains “ancient Buddhist tales of wisdom and laughter.” I noticed the book because it was co-edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi. Kaz is a Zen teacher, and also a Japanese calligrapher. He had come to Boston and given a brush writing workshop when I was a young man. I was very taken with him.
The book of stories claims to be from the Tripitaka, a Buddhist text, translated from Sanskrit into Chinese at the end of the fifth century. In it are 100 stories about fools, told in a spare and didactic way. I was astonished to find in it a story of a husband and wife who argued over who would get to eat a cake. They agreed the last one to talk would get it. Then a robber came, and even attacked the wife. The husband kept silent, and so won the cake in the end. Here was the kernel of my grandfather’s Chelm story, claiming to be from India and at least 1500 years old! I have since learned that not everything attributed to the original Indian source material is authentic. Some material was introduced by the Chinese copyists. So whether this story is Indian in origin or Chinese, I have no way to tell, but it clearly is from long, long ago, and far, far away.
In a different far away place, Buenos Ares, Argentina, in 1959, Shloime Simon published a children’s book with folk stories from all over the world. It was titled Chachomim, Naronim, un Akshonim—or Sages, Fools and Donkeys. (Donkeys, in this context is intended to mean “stubborn people”). Here he retells folk stories from all over the world, in his own style. Included among these is a story called, “An Open Door”, which he describes as “an Indian Chelm-story.” How can it be both?
In his delightful preface to the collection, the author explains how it can be both. He begins by asking a question. Why do folk stories start “Amol, amol” (“Long, long ago,” or, “Once upon a Time”)? From there, he talks about the shaping of stories over time. Naturally, his answer to the question about storytelling itself takes the form of a story. Here is a translation, which I have made with help from the author’s youngest daughter, my mother. Assume that any flaws in it are mine, and anything I got right is due to her.
To the Reader of the Stories
The first story in the book begins: “Once upon a time there was…” (“Amol, Amol hot…”), and the second story too, like this: “Once upon a time there was…” The fifth story the same way, but slightly different: “Once upon a time there were…” Practically all the stories are like that. Why, “Once upon a time”?
The way it happened is that all the beautiful stories you read and hear, come from the far distant time when no one knew how to write or read, but really no one at all. How can it be imagined? Very simply! No alphabet existed in the world. People had learned how to talk, but they did not know how to set out the words in markings or letters. They just didn’t know how to do it. But even then, they told stories from Once Upon a Time.
Who told the stories? Who remembered them? For the most part, usually, grandfathers and grandmothers, and overall, in general, old people. There were few older people in those times, not even one per family, two or three in a village. People died young from plagues, floods, hunger, and from the smallest illness or sickness. A lot of people were killed by wild animals: lions, leopards, bears, wolves and tigers.
Young people had little time to learn things thoroughly and well. They were busy getting their daily food. Only those who did not die young gathered wisdom and had the need, and remembered a lot of things.
In those days, people lived in caves, crevices in rocks, and in deep holes that they dug at the base of mountains. They covered the entrances with thick branches and with leaves, leaving only a small opening for the smoke from the fire that was always going.
In the long winter nights, or in the cold, biting winter days and in the rainy summer days, they would sit huddled in their holes around the fire and listen to some stories from the grandfathers or grandmothers.
“Ah. Once Upon a Time…
“What does ‘Once Upon a Time’ mean?”
“You think that there is a big storm outside now. My father told me that Once, long ago, it snowed for thirty days and thirty nights, and the whole world was covered in snow. In a lot of places the snow reached up to the sky. When the snow melted, the whole world was flooded. People and animals and birds died. Only those who hid at the tops of mountains, all the way up near heaven, remained.”
“What is heaven, Grandfather?”
“Once upon a time, before God created heaven and earth, the world was formless and void, a wasteland, without…”
The grandfathers had a story for everything. “Once Upon a Time…” and often the grandfather added something himself, and the number of stories grew, and the people multiplied upon the earth. So passed thousands, and hundreds of thousands of years, generation after generation.
And as the people multiplied, families became clans, large groups of families with the same name, and these grew into tribes, and from the tribes, whole nations, and the earth filled with different nations separated from one another.
Thousands, then hundreds of thousands of years passed, and people forgot that they all originated from one mother and father, from one family. In every place, a different language was spoken, different delicacies were eaten, and different clothing worn, according to the different climates in which the different peoples lived. Not only had people become estranged from each other, they even began to have wars. Now there are all types of races in the world: white, black, yellow, and every “folk” has its language.
But no matter how separate people might be, no matter how far they are from each other, they still tell similar stories, the same stories, just a little bit differently. People call these ‘variants’. The stories are changed a little, a little is put in, a little taken out, but it is all the same story.
The Hindus by the River Ganges, the Englanders by the Thames, the French by the Seine, the Lithuanians by the Niemen, the Indians by the Mississippi River, the Russians by the Volga, the Iraqis by the Tigris and Euphrates—all tell one and the same stories, changed only according to their language and memory.
The stories of all peoples have one source, are drawn from one well—from the Once Upon a Time when there was only one family in the world. We have to remember this, and remember it well. This is what our Prophet Malachai believed. He said, “Do we not all have one father? Have we not all been created by one God?”
My whole life I have loved to read stories from different folks. Now in my old age (you should know that I am already a grandfather of four grandchildren, they should live and be well) I have chosen fifteen stories and bring them as a present to you, Jewish children of Argentina. Fifteen stories about Sages, Fools, and Donkeys. You will laugh a lot, but you will also think a lot. But you will see every time that people are people all over the world.
(illustration by Stephen Hart. From More Wise Men of Helm. 1965)