The first time I read the word “latutnik” was in the story Avrom der Shuster (Abraham the Shoemaker) by Avrom Reisen (or Reyzen). The title character is actually not a proper shoemaker, but a half-shoemaker, a “patcher”. This word latutnik comes from lotes or patches. When we first read the story together in class, there was a suggestion Reyzen might have coined it, but it is a real word. It was also used for the lowest level of tailor, who could not get work making whole garments, but only mending them. In Avrom der Shuster, the title character isn’t a low-level tailor but a low-level cobbler.
A teacher said recently to pay attention if you find a woodcutter or a water-carrier or other common laborer in a Yiddish story. Consider whether that humble bearer of burdens is meant to stand in for one of the “hidden ones” (a secret holy man, or possibly even one of the thirty six righteous ones on whom the continued existence of the world depends). A beggar can also often take on that or a similar role.
Avrom the Latutnik in Reyzen’s story is clearly not a character formed out of this mold. He is no paragon of humble virtue, and his fixing people’s shoes is anything but a metaphor for fixing the world. On the contrary, he is treated with contempt by his community. He is mocked, and is never given an Aliya, even in the poor tradesmen’s synagogue, except once, and that by mistake. The low regard others hold him in leads him to simmer with rage.
All year, winter, spring and summer he is desperately poor. Then, come fall, he prays for the heavy rains that will turn the shtetl streets into rivers of mud. Mud up to people’s knees. Mud that will soak through shoe leather and rot it out. Mud that will find and invade any crack or pucker or flaw. Mud that will mean people need to fix their shoes, and that means, however much they scorned and insulted him before, they will need him. Then it will be his turn. He will gouge his helpless customers for every penny they have. The major shift in the story comes when cobblestones are brought into the shtetl and piled in the market square, in preparation for paving the streets. Paved streets will not get muddy. And what will happen to Avrom then?
Isaac the Latutnik
The next times I encountered the word were in my grandfather’s enigmatic book, Amolike Yidn. This is a book that travels through time, starting with old folk stories, then to historical legends, then to stories about people he knew of, and finally on to his own family. One story that was important to him, and later to me as a teenager, was a true story about his father (given the name Ben-Tsion in Amolike Yidn). My great-grandfather was a shoemaker who specialized in making work boots. During the Russo-Japanese war, boot makers were in particular demand when the government needed to outfit its soldiers for combat in the frigid Far East. The Czar’s Army requisitioned a large number of valinkes, fur-lined boots, to be produced as quickly as possible.
In that story, which I’ll write more about another time, cobblers’ wages go up suddenly and dramatically, and not only for the best shoemakers, but for all of them. Ben-Tsion’s wife hears in the women’s shul how Isaac the Latutnik is being paid twelve rubles a week, and he can’t even make a whole pair of boots! I knew this particular story from long ago, since it was repeated in the first volume of my grandfather’s autobiography, which was translated into English as My Jewish Roots. But as a child of course I would have had no idea what a “patcher” was and would not have cared. Now I had the pleasure of recognition. Not only had Reyzen not invented the word, it turns out that latutniks were a real thing, and not only in fiction, but in the real world.
Well, if two is corroboration, “Three times is a trend.” My late wife, when she was a journalist, had a rather doltish lifestyles editor who held this rule as gospel. As soon as something new happened three times, it was time to write an article about it. And, equally, you could not write an article about something new until it happened three times. In this case, by the third different author’s use of the word latutnik, I began to wonder whether it was a folk-literary trope.
A Mirror of Earth
I myself seem to be on a trend of reading first chapters. Reading is still so slow and exhausting. Taking on a whole book can only be done by sacrificing other goals. For now, that means only my grandfather merits such an honor. I am still just figuring out what the big landscape of Yiddish literature looks like. Then, too, teachers assign things this way, in excerpts. So, I recently picked up Motl Peysi dem Khazns (Sholem Aleichem, Mottl the Cantor’s Son), enjoyed the first chapter, and then put it down. Next week, I start the first act of An-Ski’s play Der Dibek (The Dybbuk).
In between, I had the pleasure of reading the first chapter of another Yiddish classic, Itsik Manger’s Bukh fun Ganeydn. Ganeydn, is, of course, the Garden of Eden, but outside of Torah in the world of the Jewish folk storytelling tradition it also stands for Heaven, and also the World to Come, which will be nothing other than Ganeydn on earth. So the Garden of Eden can exist before history, after the end of history, and simultaneously with it.
“The time that I spent in Ganeydn,” the book begins, “was the happiest time of my life.” In fact, this satire was written by Manger at a miserable time, when he had been displaced first from his homeland of Rumania, and then again from the capitol of his literary community, Warsaw, on the cusp of World War II. But you would not know that from the tone of the fanciful first chapter. The protagonist recalls his last day in heaven, before his wings were shorn and he was sent down to earth to be reincarnated as a human being. How is it, the alert reader may ask, he can remember something of Ganeydn from before he was born? Everyone knows that before a soul is born an angel gives it a flick on the nose, and the soul forgets everything it knows. Well, as it happened, he and his friend Pisherl caught wind of his impending demotion, and conspired to trick the angel who is slated to accompany him down to earth and to deliver the memory-obliterating flick.
The story takes them to Pisherl’s family’s house, where they will obtain a needed ingredient for their stratagem. Now a fair bit of the humor in this first chapter comes from violating our expectations of what heaven ought to be like. The angel who is looking for the protagonist, to take him down to earth, has stopped in at the tavern The Sign of Noah for a few drinks. More than a few, in fact. Meanwhile, the hero and his friend arrive at Pisherl’s house. Here’s how it is described:
“On the wall hung a sign. On the sign was painted an angel with patched wings. It indicated that Pisherl’s father was a Latutnik, who repaired angels’ worn-out wings.
Yes, there are rich and poor people in Manger’s Ganeydn. To underscore the point, Pisherl’s mother calls him inside to supper, saying that his tripe is getting cold. Later on in the story, two angels collide while flying in a dense fog. One of them damages his wing, and heads off to Pisherl’s father’s house to get it fixed.
The Latutnik’s Children
Since, dear friend, I’m sure you hang on my every word, you might have noticed that earlier when I talked about my Zeidy’s book I wrote in the plural: “The next times I encountered the word were in my grandfather’s enigmatic book, Amolike Yidn.”
The first story that included a reference to Isaac the Latutnik, as I said, was well known to me. It was repeated in My Jewish Roots. But the two published volumes of my grandfather’s autobiography only took him, more or less, to his arrival in America. He never wrote the next volume of his memoir. So the last story in Amolike Yidn, a book that deliberately blurs lines between folktale and non-fiction and then veers into straight autobiography, appears only there. In translating that book, I learned of it for the first time.
It is after the Revolution. The old bootmaker has retired, and is living off money that his far-scattered children (especially the author, who is making a reasonable living in America) send back to him:
Now it happened there was turmoil in the country and people began persecuting those who had dollars. The secret police had a list ready, a register of everyone who had dollars. There on the list it was written that anyone who had foreign money was a speculator. People were being arrested right and left, and woe was to him who did not give up the foreign currency, whether he had speculated with it or not.
Once, late after midnight, the police knocked on Ben-Tsion the Shoemaker’s door. The two sons of Isaac the Latutnik had come. They had been Ben-Tsion’s neighbors, had once been friendly with his children, and had known the old man from childhood. Isaac’s sons had become the heads of the secret police.
Again, I will not recount all the details of that story here. I would be beyond thrilled if someone would go to the original Yiddish to find out. But, since the chapter is titled The Death of Ben-Tsion the Shoemaker, I guess it is no mystery that the story ends badly. Even though it’s clear to everyone that he has come by his American dollars legitimately, Isaac’s sons eventually have Ben-Tsion arrested when he refuses to turn them over.
Society has been upended. The latutnik’s children are now in charge.