On Friday, on my way to Boston for a family event, I stopped by the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst. I don’t get there very often, so I went a little bit nuts. I wanted to get one of my grandfather Solomon Simon’s books to give as a gift. Then, I got a couple of more, because they are in better shape than the copies I already have, or to give as future gifts.
I wanted some poetry books, too. First, I wanted some of Chaim Grade’s poetry. His fiction is better known, but Grade wrote many books of poems, very few of which were ever translated. I hope that this is in the process of being remedied. The publication of English translations would make the originals more likely to be read and appreciated.
It’s Grade who wrote the poem “Old Boys Who Collect Books” [see post about first stanza here]. Grade knew my grandfather, but book obsession was a general cultural phenomenon. And, I am the echo. I didn’t stop with Grade, but also got a couple of books by Rukhl Korn, and by Yankev Glatshteyn. And I thought my Appalachian epic poet friend might be interested to know about Schwartz’s book about Kentucky. And, naturally, I needed the second volume of Yehoash’s TaNaKh, especially since I have a project in mind for which I will need to compare my grandfather’s abridgments to the original.
One thing I will never have is his library. When Zeidy died, no one knew what to do with his books. Obviously, he had many. He was not just a storyteller, but a scholar and commentator with wide-ranging interests. Some of his books were rare and from the old world. Most were in Yiddish, but many were in Hebrew. I actually own his English copy of the Naked and the Dead, by Norman Mailer, with some passages marked. I don’t know what essay he used it for. After other possibilities were explored and did not work out, it was decided to donate his collection to our synagogue’s
public library. But they did not know what to do with it, and left it in storage in boxes. There was a flood, the books got wet, molded, and were thrown away. In a world of tragedies, this was a small one.
There is a scene in my grandfather’s book Kluge Hent, [for people with kindles, my uncle David Simon’s English translation is available here as an ebook], when a scholar is leaving home to try to make his way in the world. He packs his wife and his worldly goods onto a wagon. But what books to bring? A pity to leave anything behind, but he can’t bring the whole library. Naturally, he must have a Shas [a complete edition of the Talmud]. But which commentaries are most important to bring? His dilemma, drawn economically with a few telling details, is a swift way to show the depth of his love for learning, and also how little he has thought about where he’s going and what he’ll need to cope. It is funny and sad at the same time.
Anyway, after I was done and my bag already over full, I noticed Mani Leib’s books. I do have them already in digital format. But the little volume of sonnets, Leib’s last publication, is thin and lovely, with the titles printed in red. I’ve written about one of those sonnets here [link]. I took it off the shelf. Inside, the book was stamped all over its title page by the Jewish Library of Mexico. I didn’t want stamps all over, so I put it back and picked up the next copy. I opened it up. There was some writing on the frontispiece. It was a handwritten note to my grandfather.
“For Dr. Solomon Simon…. Years of friendship…” I had known that he and Mani Leib were friends. Leib is listed among the writers whose letters are in my grandfather’s archive, in YIVOs online description. How great that his papers went to YIVO and were not moldered and discarded with his books. I showed the inscription to a Book Center staff person, and soon had a few of them gathered around. But I had gotten ahead of myself. The book of sonnets was not given to my grandfather by the author, but was a gift from a different friend.
“For Dr. Solomon Simon. With the friendship of years, and with heartfelt greetings…” The signature line was hard for me to read. I still need to work on deciphering handwriting. But the staff person said something like Rochelle. When I got it home and had time to take a closer look, it seemed phonetically like “Roshelle” or “Rashelle”, and the last name seemed to be “Vefrinski” or “Vafrinski”. I googled a couple of variants, including swapping a pey for the letter fey. And there it was.
Sheva Zucker’s blog Candles of Song, written as a memorial tribute to her mother, was an amazing resource for me when I was beginning to learn about Yiddish poetry. It turns out that the poem from which that blog takes its title was written by the poet Rashel Veprinsky. You can read about Veprinsky, and read her poem ‘Frum‘ here: http://shevazucker.com/blog/?p=40
It just amazes me that I happened to pick up this specific book. But also, that it made it to the Yiddish Book Center in the first place. How could it have gotten there, when the rest of his library was ruined and discarded? My first and best guess was, somebody borrowed it from my grandfather, and never gave it back. Until now.
[Update] But it is better even than that. Veprinsky, according to Zucker’s blog, was Leib’s “life companion”. The book of sonnets was published posthumously. Clearly, Leib’s widow personally gave my grandfather his copy. So, I am even happier to have it. But this does seem to blow my theory about how the book survived his library’s destruction, and I remain even more mystified as to how it ever turned up in Amherst.