Yesterday I deleted the The Book of Legendary Lands, by Umberto Eco, from my Amazon dot com shopping cart, where it has sat since it was released. Eco has already made a cameo appearance once in this blog, in a rather jumbled post about different kinds of not knowing. He is also central to a half-cooked post about polylingualism that I still hope to salvage and share with you.
I did not delete the book because Amazon has an ad campaign featuring Nazi symbols on New York City subway trains. That’s pure coincidence. I would spend out the rest of my gift certificate money even were Amazon run by Nazis. I deleted Imaginary Lands from my queue because I have my hands full with actual places.
My Zeidy would often set even his folklore-based stories in a specific shtetl, or in an unnamed village in a specific region, or occasionally in a specific well-known big city. Take the beginning of his book Kluge Hent, for example, which I first read in 1994: Tif, tif in der medine Moldavye, Deep, deep in the country of Moldavia, reads the first sentence, vos iz gebentsht mit di shenste perishkes-seder un mit di beste vayngertner in der velt, which is blessed with the most beautiful perishkes-seder and with the best vineyards in the world, hot gelebt a Yid a vayner, there lived a vintner.
I knew what a Seder was, of course, but but what was (or were) perishkes פּערישקעס? The word was not in Uriel Weinreich’s dictionary. Seder, I knew, could refer not just to the banquet and reading at Passover, but also meant ‘order’. It could perhaps be, I thought, a catalogue or list or set of procedures or instructions, but without any clue about the perishkes, I was not going to figure it out. I asked my mother and she didn’t know off-hand at the time.
Incredibly, it was twenty-one years until I finally deciphered the meaning of “perishkes-seder”. Not that it should have been that hard. But the first time around in my trying to learn Yiddish as an adult I was not in a class, and had available only the Weinrauch, which is not as good as the dictionary I have now. Then, too, my whole endeavor didn’t last that long. A parent of baby twins does not always get to ‘follow his bliss’. My uncle ended up translating the book a few years later, but when I read his version, I somehow skimmed past the question. It turns out that perishkes is a variant of fershkes, or peaches. Seder had nothing to do with the Passover Seder, but is simply the plural of sod, or orchard.
Moldavia mattered because it was a place where Jews were allowed to own land in the nineteenth century, an exception rather than the rule in Central and Eastern Europe. So if you wanted a story featuring a Jewish vintner, that was a good place to set it. Part of what would then have been Moldavia is now in Romania, and part is the Republic of Moldova. Last year (2014), after Moldova made an agreement with the European Union, Russia retaliated by cutting off imports from Moldova of wine and of fruit, including peaches.
In a second example, one of my grandfather’s retold folktales is set in a shtetl named Petrikov, in Bealarus. It is offhandedly mentioned that when a character is ready to be ordained as a rabbi, he travels to Slonim to be examined by a famous rabbi there. Both Petrikov and Slonim were and are real places. The latter was a Jewish center, and gave rise to a branch of Hasidm who now live in Israel. A web search turned up an article about the seventeenth century synagogue in Slonim, which was clearly once a beautiful building. There has been talk of preserving it [see link here] but it strikes me as a long shot.
As an aside, Slonim is in a region called Gorodno. My father’s father came from a place with that name. Unfortunately, there is at least one place named Gorodno each in Poland, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. I’m fairly sure that our Gorodno is the one in Poland. But, and this may strike the reader as odd, I actually don’t care that much, and have no desire to go there, or to any of the specific spots where my family originated. As far as I know, my grandparents left no traces in the Old World, with the possible exception of my mother’s father, who still had family there after the war. And the people whom we lived among, and who ‘inherited’ our places, had not treated us well.
To learn a language is to learn not just words, but a culture. I’ve said as much. I do want to know more about my heritage and my identity, about the forces that shaped my grandparents’ and my parents’ lives. In that context, my lack of curiosity about the finer grain of the specific towns in my family story (and especially, my indifference to what is left there now) might itself seem curious, but there it is. I care about the history in its general outlines: In this region we farmed. Here we were the tavern-keepers. This town was known for textiles. That city had a famous Yeshiva. Here the Hasidic movement was at its strongest. There was a particularly odious pogrom. And so on.
I guess my real interest in the places is to enrich my understanding of the stories, rather than being interested in the stories and literature as a way of understanding exactly what happened where and when. I think it is cool that there are still vineyards and peaches where my grandfather put them in his story, and that the husk of a synagogue still stands where a character in another story went to study and be examined. But that’s as far as it goes with me, at least for now.
By contrast, there are the admirable people who might ideally, if they could, document every Jewish house on every Jewish street in every Jewish hamlet in the old country. Leah Zazulyer, whose beautiful new bilingual edition of Israel Emiyot’s poetry I have mentioned here before, also recently finished a monumental work, curating, compiling, deciphering, editing and organizing a tremendous amount of material (totaling over 1000 pages) under the title The Shershev Compendium. This brings to some closure work begun by Moishe Kantorowitz, who came from the same small town in Bealarus where Zazulyer’s family originated. The Compendium includes memoirs, testimony and stories of holocaust survivors, and also a map of the town describing who lived where, with over 350 specific individual addresses indicated with the names of residents. The map is indexed to Kantorowitz’s comments about the residents’ professions (glassmaker, wheelwright, tailor, wagoner, teacher, store owner, matchmaker,..) and other notes (beautiful talker, came from the next town over, brother of the crazy person, had a miracle garden, house used to be an orphanage, and on and on).
Here’s what Kantorowitz said about his lifelong project:
“For me these are painful and heart-rendering memories of Shershev… They never fail to move me to tears… They are holier and more precious than anything in the world… I can honestly say that I have spent my entire life remembering…. I feel deeply that my life would not have been complete without doing so. I have filed all these things carefully in my memory and guarded them for a long, long time, until I could finally put them on paper.”
What are healthy and unhealthy attitudes towards the specifics of particular places in the old world, for those of us who were born in America to parents who were born in America? For a survivor and his/her direct descendants, testimony is testimony. For an immigrant, memory is memory. For a child of immigrants, nostalgia for their parents’ memories, heard in person, is a way of honoring thy mother and father. But for a child of a child of America, at some point nostalgia for someone else’s nostalgia for someone else’s memory feels like sentimentality, unlinked to any true experience or true emotion. Or at least that would be the case if the civilization whose memory was in question had not been abruptly killed off.
In the past we have defied the natural dilution of belonging and responsibility. “If I forget Thee, O Jerusalem…” Jews are not only the People of the Book, we were also the People of Israel when, for centuries, travel to Israel was rare. In Medinas Yisroyl un Erets Yisroyl, my grandfather wrote that when first went to Israel physically, he had long inhabited the place in his mind and memory, through his intense study of holy texts. Reading deeply and imaginatively had enabled him to live there and here at the same time, in the past and in the present at the same time, just as devout Jews had ever since we were forced to leave in the first place. There was amazingly little dilution of that sense of belonging to a place for two thousand years. Note that I said “reading deeply and imaginatively”. The life is breathed into the place by the story and by the reader alike.
But are we really now in exile from what, when inhabited, was not a homeland but itself an exile? Or does our way of connecting current identity to past place have to be different now– selective, filtered and distilled through an ideology or a set of stories? Should someone else’s memories be “holier and more precious” to us than our own lived experience?
For me, the stories are the key. True stories or invented stories, factual stories or folk stories, the filter of narrative will over time do a better job of fixing (in both senses of the word) the places of the past, of selecting them and defining them and making them portable, than any list or literal map or current physical ruin will be able to do. Zazulyer’s and Kantorowitz’ Compendium, already remarkable as testimony and as ethnography, will be successful as a living document to the extent that the embedded stories transform the place into a setting that people will want to revisit and reimagine.
So that’s my provisional attitude towards the multiple, vivid, but potentially exhausting and overwhelming details of the places of Ashkenazic Jewry. Marianne Moore once famously said that the goal of poetry is to create “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” For me, for now, I am enjoying the real towns of the Old Country, not for the facts, or the details of buildings or the names of people per se, but as stage settings for stories, simultaneously true and imagined, that belong to them. Not legendary lands, but real lands with legendary people in them.
And now, having said all that, I take it back, just a little. The interior of the Slonim Synagogue really is a gorgeous physical fact, and it does change the way one imagines the story. The right facts in the right places can make a story feel more real.