Yesterday I broke a tooth. The corner of a molar was gone without my having felt it go, but it left a hole and a jagged edge. Normal ups and downs of life. But I’m jobless and in a new town, and it didn’t hurt, so I decided to ignore it.
It was a day nothing was easy, and nothing stuck. I did manage to submit a couple of poems for publication in the morning, but then once my tooth broke, I became restless. I looked up Jewish Studies resources at the two schools in town and ended up lost in one of those internet-browsing rambles where one link takes you to another and then to another, and you forget what you were looking for.
I ended up downloading Yehoash’s poetry, but not reading it. Our reading group spent a lot of time last year with his translation of the TaNaKh. Given what I spend my time doing, it gratified me to think about how being a poet is a great training for the work of being a translator and vice versa, but I haven’t read his poetry yet. It turns out his collected poems is titled In Geveb.
I have been happily observing the flood of articles coming through the new Yiddish Studies online journal InGeveb. If you don’t know about it yet, here’s the link to their web page [ingeveb.org]. Go there and click around. I recommend it in the strongest terms. But I had missed the detail that they’d named themselves after Yehoash’s poetry.
Meanwhile, I continued to wander without knowing what I was looking for. At lunchtime I went to the library and then browsed in a used bookstore. Nothing. At home, I idly leafed (or paged electronically) through a half-dozen Yiddish books. Through Yehoash, through Der Oytser fun der Yidisher Sprach, which I’d downloaded after someone in my online meanderings called it ‘indispensible’, and finally through three or four of my grandfather’s books.
Nothing stuck, except a couple of sentences from Yidn Tvishn Felker. He mentions off-handedly that we know how difficult it is to be away from home in a foreign environment, but imagine how much harder it must have been for the those who experienced the Babylonian exile. Not only was that exile involuntary, not only was the environment strange, but the promised link between God and land, between spirituality and place, had been shattered. Yet (I know he will go on to say) it was exactly in that displaced condition that Judaism was forged.
Four years ago I wrote a long personal essay about place, exile, and the idea of home. I was preparing to move to western New York. That move turned out to be a mistake, at least at the time, as it ushered in a period of brutal social isolation. Dislocation, isolation and placelessness significantly set back my process of grieving and healing, but also made me into a poet.
Adaptation to a place never goes smoothly. Ithaca, though it is a town that everyone likes to visit, is going to present its own particular set of challenges. When I first got here, I went to a dinner party with Kathie’s friends. Remembering some of the themes from my old essay, I asked them to talk about home, and what it meant to them. Though many had been here for decades almost none of them thought of this place as home. One said that in his mind the place he grew up would always be home, and he still continually compared this place to that one in his mind. Another said that he supposed only when he moved away from here would he truly feel like an Ithacan. A third, who is happy with her dwelling, her husband, and her work nevertheless went so far as to say that that if she ended up dying and being buried here, she felt deep down that somehow she would have lived her life wrong.
Fundamentally, I blame academic culture. Professors are always building relationships with people who go away. Undergrads in four years, grad students anywhere from two to seven. When I was not on a tenure track, at SUNY Geneseo, none of my colleagues showed the slightest inclination to get to know me outside the office. Even among the tenured faculty, promotion sometimes comes from switching institutions. Finally, in a world where deep expertise about small things is valued over broad, synthetic thinking, a scholar often comes to think of ‘her people’ not as the ones around her, but the ones who share her particular subspecialty, wherever they happen to live and work.
The fact that most people who live here may not feel at home or be committed to this place is, frankly, daunting. But meanwhile, here I am. And, like a happy lover in a new relationship, I deny that duration is the measure of happiness. I want to be in the moment.
This moment, still not unpacked and not knowing the landscape, can be aggravating. Even my trip to the laundromat yesterday evening went awry, or at least was another experience of easy things being hard. I knew of a laundromat right next to where I could grab some dinner, timed the errand to when I was hungry, and got there to discover all the machines and plumbing were torn up. They are closed for renovation.
“But think how much harder it is for someone who is really in exile.” I relocated to the laundromat nearer my place, put in my clothes and logged on to the free wireless. A while later, a man came in who did not know how the change machine worked. “Where do you put in the quarters?” No, I explained to him. It gives quarters. All the washing and drying machines take quarters. “Even this one?” He indicated the machine that sells soap. Yes, that one too. A dollar-changing machine is such a basic object that I knew he could not be from here. “Welcome,” I said.
In the few minutes we had together (my laundry being nearly done by then) I determined that he is a fascinating person. Here for two months to teach a class at Cornell, he is a human rights advocate, journalist, and documentary filmmaker. He is also someone who knows the experience of going back and learning his family’s heritage language. When I got home I looked him up, and sent him an email practically imploring him to be my friend.
And so, I turned a delightful encounter into a clumsy one. And then again, this morning I felt out of place and out of step as I tried to find a dentist. Apparently many of them are closed on Fridays. The second place I walked in, I saw a book on the receptionist’s desk titled “Writing through the Darkness”. I asked her about it before I noticed the subtitle, which was “Easing Your Depression with Paper and Pen.” She was fine about it, and we had a conversation that was slightly more intimate than either of us expected at that moment. But it is a fine line between being wide open, which is an asset in a new place, and being awkwardly intrusive or desperate. After my two encounters I was left knowing that I will, in fact, quickly meet people and make friends here, but also knowing that it’s time for me to go back and visit my friends in Rochester.
How does all this tie into learning Yiddish? It doesn’t particularly. I could say that feeling out of place even at home is a quintessentially Jewish experience. I’m sure we’ll make it back to that idea, but it’s kind of stretching things to tie my first experiences in a new town to that.
I do think my early forays into finding Yiddish community here are going to have this same flavor of being wide open and tentative at the same time. In a fortuitous bit of timing, there is going to be a mini Yiddish theater festival here (more about that soon), and I found myself introducing myself on the phone to a person who was just trying to sell a ticket. On the reverse side, I met a man whose father speaks Yiddish who is desperate for me to befriend him. That desperation gives me pause. Of course, no one wants his father to be lonely, but there was an edge to it that seems like more than that.
And to you, my reader, I make no apology that this is more of a diary entry than a thought piece. I will settle down soon, and we can get back to talking about the Oytser fun der Yidisher Sprach, which turns out to be a thousand-page-long thesaurus. We can explore Yiddish idiomatic expressions with cats, or discuss my grandfather’s idealization of life in the old world, and whether there is more than one kind of nostalgia. But language is after all, and above all, a tool for connecting to other people. Culture is made by human beings, nu?