How I wish I were in New York City right now!
Instead, I’m in Rochester, settling back in after a weekend trip, traveling again at the end of the week, and unable to squeeze a last minute change of plans in between.
What has spurred this sudden longing is “Kulturfest”, happening in New York this week. There is klezmer music, there are films, and more interestingly to me personally, there are Symposia— talks about Yiddish culture and literature, language and history. The symposia feature some important names in contemporary Yiddish studies, and range across a great variety of subjects. Here is the description of Tuesday (tomorrow’s) talks:
and here is the description of Wednesday’s talks:
These talks are in the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Pl, New York, NY 10280. I hope someone who reads this can go to some, or knows someone in New York who can. Maybe if there are enough attendees, they will do it again.
Ah, the longing to be where I’m not. I have been thinking about place a lot, as I am preparing to move from Rochester to Ithaca. Musing in rather concrete terms about how the value of being in the right place depends on timing. One challenge is that I will be looking for work soon after I move from a larger to a smaller town. I delayed the move until now, partly because of my Yiddish learning, wanting more time to spend on this blog and my translations, and with the people I’ve been studying with. You need to study with others before self-study is possible, and friendship can be maintained by visiting only after it is solid.
From the point of view of my personal life, this move is perfectly timed. I’m not just going to be happy, I’m already happy. But from the point of view of Yiddish, I wonder would it would be like if I’d had a year less here, or a year more, or if I were heading to a center, such as New York, or Boston, where opportunities to learn would be more available.
I’m not just indulging myself in writing about these things, though of course I’m doing that, too. ‘Blog’ means, I get to write about whatever I’m thinking, and really needs no justification. But the effect of timing on the meaning of (dis)location is a central one for groups as well as individuals.
Historically, there are so many aspects to this. In my last poorly articulated post, I began to try to think about the 30s through 60s (when the mass of individuals nearly unanimously chose to raise their children in English) and particularly the postwar half of that interval, when the cost of such a choice could already be apprehended. Less than a generation later, following the civil rights movement, ideas of separatism and then of ‘biculturalism’, began to take hold among American minority groups, but these ideas still had little grip on secular American Jews.
Timing. If the sequential shocks of mass migration, the Holocaust, the founding of the State of Israel, and Stalin’s suppression of Yiddish had happened a century before, there might be no modern Yiddish literature at all. If they had happened fifty years later,…?
In the course of our poetry reading group this year, I was struck repeatedly by how many of the greatest Yiddish poets were born over an extremely concentrated period of time. Barely two generations. The advantage of migrating around or after puberty (so that English, or spoken Hebrew would always feel like a ‘second’ language), of having had at least some examples of secular Yiddish writers who came before, of still being young enough to share an iconoclastic spirit, the hope of a better world at career onset, having started before the unthinkable… Cultural growth happens at an intersection of individual development and history. And poetic movements appear to start typically with more than two and less than a dozen people of a generation in a particular place, with a particular burning drive to make something new, in love and rivalry.
I can easily wallow in regret. I’m 55. Because I (re)started writing poetry in my 50s, I will never be the poet I might have been, and because I started studying Yiddish in my 50s, I will never master Yiddish well enough to write or speak naturally in it. It’s true, I began by only wanting to learn to read it, and that is going extremely well. But unlike a young person who has an enthusiasm, there is little sense that this enthusiasm could easily give birth to another, which could become a substantive contribution, or even a life calling.
I hear a protest forming. ‘Is this even true? Why limit yourself?’ No one likes being told something is impossible. ‘Age is all in the mind.’
But it isn’t. It’s in the brain. It’s in the time one has left. It’s in the opportunities made available by others and expectations others have of you. Each of these could make a blog post in itself. I will try to tackle at least one of these issues soon, in post I will tentatively title “55 isn’t old, but it ain’t young.”
For now, I’ll leave you with a plea, if you’re in New York or can get there, to go to Kulturfest, and then tell me all about it.