Often, once you have learned a word, it turns up in all kinds of places. Part One of “The Latutnik’s Children” was a description of my various encounters with the word Latutnik. If you haven’t read that yet, click here and read that first [link to part 1]. My musings about the meaning of these encounters would have made that post too long, so I append them here. First, these stories about latutniks led me to think about hierarchy and revenge. Second, the latutnik seemed an apt metaphor to use in my ongoing effort to justify my own attempts at working with this material and, more broadly, to encourage all of us who come to Yiddish late, or with inadequate background, or both.
“Happy is he who repays you as you have served us.”
Reyzen’s short story about Avrom der Shuster describes the resentment of the downtrodden. In an earlier blog post I shared Reyzen’s poem, Der Rebbe iz Geshtorbn [link]. In this poem the Rebbe, with “his eyes that pierced like arrows” has died. Far from being sad, the children revel in their freedom. They escape from the Kheyder and run wild in the shtetl. After a romp through the market square, they are off into the woods, where they play war. The boys who are now on top are the son of the butcher and of the skinner. Where, before, intellectual status was paramount, now it is physical strength.
This has been a crazy political season. A populist with a democratic socialist platform gave the democratic party’s consensus candidate a run for her money. And this week Donald Trump, a man who does not have a single skill or qualification for the job, effectively clinched the Republican nomination for president. Why is this such a deeply anti-establishment moment in America?
The narrative we are often given is that those who have not been served under our political and economic system are making their voices heard. Sanders, and especially Trump, have been effective at focusing the resentment of poor whites, rural whites, the previously secure working class people whose jobs went overseas. Now it’s their turn to make the elites listen. It’s possible that this narrative is not correct (a recent article by Nate Silver has me wondering). But I do not doubt that the resentment and insecurity are real. Beware, warns Reyzen, the person who has been treated with contempt.
The story of Isaac the Latutnik’s sons also clarified for me the vehemence of my grandfather’s anticommunism. He was, from the beginning, a fervently patriotic American. He served in the army towards the end of World War I. He used to say that to really appreciate America you had to have been born in Tsarist Russia. I long knew that when my aunt fell in love with and married a man with communist leanings, my Zeidy vehemently disapproved. I always assumed this was ideological, or because he saw communism as anti-American.
But the roots of his animus were more personal. Not only was his father mistreated by the communists, the pretext of that mistreatment was the very money my grandfather himself had sent back to the old country. His efforts to help his parents ended up being used as a weapon against them. Success per se was suspect, or even a crime, in the upside-down world created by the Latutnik’s children.
I am a Latutnik
Viewed one way or another we might all be considered latutniks, or latutniks’ children. We live in a society that is hierarchically organized (particularly for men) around wealth and professional status. But nevertheless, whatever your basic social and economic status, everyone is bad at something. And certainly it’s not possible to learn a language without being bad at it at first. Even as I’m getting better and better at reading, when I try to speak I still sound like someone with an intellectual disability, or like a toddler. But there is no way past that except by continuing to try.
Yiddish also poses other unique challenges. Challenges that can easily lead one to feel like a “patcher” rather than someone who can cope with a whole garment. The Yiddish writers and readers were multilingual. A Yeshiva-trained maskil (a proponent of modernism) may have had five or six languages. At the least, they were likely to know the connotation or feeling-sense of a Russian-root word, and whether the term had been imported into Yiddish matter-of-factly or ironically. They knew Hebrew and Aramaic; and not just the definitions of words. They often knew scriptural or Talmudic uses of a Hebrew phrase and, again, whether the Yiddish version was a straightforward or ironic adaptation. Just getting a dictionary definition of a word can feel like having a patch but not knowing the shape of the hole it is intended to cover.
The vocabulary is only the beginning of the knowledge a Yiddish writer assumed from his or her readers. Ritual practices, history (including wars, changes in what country controlled a particular town, when and where major waves of pogroms occurred, economic crises, etc.), cultural differences between Jews in different regions, and all manner of customs and objects of daily life were also shared frames of reference. A civilization is gone. The work of learning Yiddish and reading Yiddish literature is necessarily a partial endeavor, a salvage job, a work of patching and repair. I grew up in a non-observant home in the suburbs. A third-generation American student of Yiddish is going to be at a distance from his subject matter and have only a piecemeal understanding.
It may help to remember that even the first modern Jewish writers were also engaged in a salvage operation of sorts. They were also looking backward in order to move forward, trying to put together pieces of the Jewish folk tradition and of the formal religious teachings and find those ethical principles and stories which could serve a modern purpose in a changing world.
A latutnik must also have been a kind of recycler. I imagine them saving scraps of whatever kind, never knowing what could be put to use and for what purpose. And I have a scrap of a story that seems to fit here. When my grandmother Lena (Solomon Simon’s beloved wife) died, my uncle David spoke at her funeral. He talked about how modern she was in her sensibilities, and about how much she loved technology. She drove long before most women drove. She also, he mentioned, loved her garbage disposal. She used to say that she remembered when she was young, that her family had been so poor that they didn’t even have any garbage.
In my intellectual poverty as a new learner about a world and a people both strange and my own, I don’t have any garbage. If I find a scrap or a patch of knowledge and no hole to put it in, I’ll hold on to it. On the positive side, gathering remnants feels like good Jewish work. On the negative side, it’s sometimes hard to know what to focus on, because everything I encounter seems like it could be just what I need. Meanwhile, until such time as we can organize this metaphor into a movement, or develop the skills to make whole and saleable garments, I would encourage everyone who has only a few stories, or even only a few words, not to give up, not to pray for mud nor khas v’kholile to vote for it, but to keep stitching.