Oct. 23, 1969
David, my youngest grandson—
Thank you for your beautiful letter. But you are smart, Doodle, very clever. I think when you grow up you will be more clever than Zeide Simon and a better writer. I treasure your letter it will go, as the letters of very important people, to the archive of YIVO*.
PS. I wait impatiently to see my three grandsons. Bubby sends her regards.
[*note: YIVO, or the Yidisher visnshaftlekher institute, was founded in Vilna in the 1920s and moved to New York City during WWII. Its library and archive form a record and repository of Eastern European Jewish culture and history.]
Last month I had a chance to talk to my friends in Rochester and to a large audience that had come out for an afternoon of Yiddish music, poetry, and song. I was to talk about my grandfather, about his work, and about my coming to learn Yiddish and to begin translating his books. Too much material for the brief time I had. So, I glossed quickly over his biography and the bibliography of his work, and tried to focus on my relationship to him.
It is that personal relationship which brought me to Yiddish, and which still organizes my learning goals. I received the letter quoted above at age nine, a year before Solomon Simon died. I was left with my memories of him, memories rank with the smell of cigar smoke and as bright and full of laughter as his eyes. Left, too, with his books that were available in English, and with his untranslated ones as a distant aspiration.
I have already told the story of walking into the Rochester JCC more than forty years later and seeing one of those books on a shelf of the wonderful Yiddish library there. In fact, it’s there I found the last of his twenty full-length Yiddish books that I didn’t already own. I have talked about my inspiring teacher Deborah, the reading circle her students formed, and in general what a great learning environment it is at the JCC. No surprise, then, that my coming there to remember him, share pictures of him and of his books, read a snip of one of them in Yiddish and English, and talk about how he has inspired me, was all very warmly received.
Absent that community since I moved last summer, I’ve worked at first on my own, plugging away at my translating (I’m currently working on another children’s book, “The Clever Little Tailor”). When that was not enough, I turned to online classes. Even when I don’t have anything tangible to report here, the progress continues. As I mentioned, my learning goals are organized and motivated by my ongoing relationship with my grandfather. I continue to be surprised and delighted at how meaningful it is, getting to know him better so long after he physically passed out of my life. And that includes getting to know his limitations as well as his wisdom and his humor.
But my grandfather has also been an in into a whole civilization. To become a reader of his Yiddish, I become a reader of Yiddish in general. To understand him, I have to understand something about his times, his place, his models and his peers. So, in my talk, I listed the names of all the other writers that I have already been introduced to as a Yiddish learner, even in my first couple of years.
By analogy, my brilliant and broadly curious sweetheart studies fungi. She thinks like a naturalist, not like a reductionist (someone who might spend a career studying one molecular process in one type of cell in one class of living things). In order to really understand an organism, one has to know about its life cycle and its ecosystem. How does the insect host or the plant host (on which the fungus depends) live? How is it being affected by human intrusion into its habitat, or by climate change? I think a passionate interest in any randomly chosen living thing, along with a broad and penetrating curiosity, will give someone a way to approach understanding our whole beautiful interconnected planet.
So it is with me when in order to get the most out of Di Heldn fun Khelm (The Wise Men of Helm), I am drawn into other tellings of those same stories, not only in Jewish folklore, but in the folk stories of other cultures, too. This week for my online class I have been reading Y. Y. Trunk’s Khelemer Khakhomim, and comparing the similarities and differences with my Zeidy’s versions. And I can’t wait for this fall when Ruth von Bernuth (University of North Carolina) publishes her book-length treatment of Chelm stories. Stay tuned here.
All this gives me an idea. For anyone who wants to go deeper into Yiddish learning but is not lucky enough to have the specific kind of Yiddish yerushe (family heritage) that I was given, I have a suggestion. Adopt a Yiddish writer. Pretend she or he is your grandfather or grandmother. You weren’t given a half shelf full of untranslated books to motivate you? So, pick one! Once you do, if you think of the writer as your grandmother or grandfather, you will keep reading even when the work is a little patchy or dull, or when you disagree with it, or when the vocabulary is too hard. You will want to know where they came from, and that will bring you to learn about a specific part of the Old Country. You will want to know who they hung out with, and that will bring you to one set of writers, and to know who their role models were, and that will bring you to a different set. Or, maybe not. Maybe you don’t have time for all that but could still use this idea to push yourself to finish one whole book. I know someone who has carried his uncle’s book around for decades, hoping to find someone to read it with him. Be that someone.
Beginning by reading and translating the children’s books of one author has been an entree, and also a limitation. The dynamic of my relationship to my grandfather brings me to broader interests and back again. When you learn out of the dictionary, of course you don’t get the same tam (the same feel or taste) as with spoken language. Many nuances of tone, of word choice, and of idiom are missed. And so I decided that to move forward, I needed to take an intensive in-person Yiddish course this summer. Of these, by far the best regarded, the most extensive and intensive, is the Uriel Weinreich Yiddish Summer Program, which is hosted by YIVO in New York.
While I’m there, I’m hoping to get at the archive, where my grandfather’s papers are housed. Here’s a screen shot of their description of their holdings:
His catalogue lists manuscripts and autobiographical materials. I’m very curious to know whether he ever made notes for a third volume of his autobiography, which would include more about his life after he came to America. There is also a list of prominent Yiddish writers with whom he corresponded. I’d love to see what Shalom Asch wrote to him before and perhaps after they fell out over Asch’s Yiddish novels about the life of Jesus.
Again, this is an example of how my relationship with him defines my curriculum. Though he did have a typewriter, in order to read many or most of his letters I will have to learn to read Yiddish cursive handwriting. So, on top of the language classes I will have another challenge. I am confident my long-ago background as a calligrapher will come in handy here. On that list, there are also letters from Leibush Lehrer, Shmuel Niger, and Mani Leib in particular that I hope to be able to read.
And maybe, somewhere in one of those boxes, there will be a letter from a nine-year-old boy.