Early on in this process I reconciled myself to the fact that the best of my grandfather’s works were probably the ones that were already translated into English in his lifetime. In particular, I love The Wise Men of Helm, The Wandering Beggar, and the first volume of his autobiography, My Jewish Roots. Of course a really good writer never leaves you empty. There have been more than enough delightful passages and insights into his world view in each Yiddish book I have worked on. What I’m hoping for, once I’ve finished translating all of the children’s titles, is to select some of the finer excerpts and compile them into a Solomon Simon reader.
Of the two children’s books I mentioned, The Wise Men of Helm has had its full share of acclaim. In fact, the English translation is still in print over a half century after it first appeared. But The Wandering Beggar is out of print and obscure. Which is a great pity. It is, in some ways, my favorite thing he wrote.
“Ugly and stupid” from early childhood, Simple Shmerl (or, in the Yiddish, Shmerl the Fool) would in these more enlightened times be described very differently. Then, he was simply called a simpleton. In that era, it was straightforwardly better to be ‘smart’ than to be ‘stupid’, and that was that. His “cognitive disability” is not only unspecified, it is denigrated by the other characters. Tormented by other children, Shmerl leaves his home to seek his fortune in the wide world, and becomes a beggar.
Out in the wider world, he comes to embody the folklore character of the Holy Fool. He is put in situations where his lack of understanding again and again turns out to be just the thing that is needed. He encounters thieves, a greedy miser, the old-world version of an “identity thief”, and others. Each time, he solves a seemingly intractable problem without the slightest clue of what he is doing.
As the book goes on, Shmerl increases somewhat in insight and definitely in dignity, while retaining his essential character. The challenges he faces become less individual and more collective, as Jewish communities need the person they believe to be a “holy man” and “miracle worker”, to contend with classic anti-Semitic folklore nemeses: an evil prime minister, a blood libel, a pogrom.
Shmerl’s blankness is a perfect screen on which to project the folly of those who should know better, the randomness of fate, and the nature of moral courage. The author never mistreats or disrespects his character. On the contrary. Shmerl’s good heart leads the reader to identify with him throughout. I think the book still holds up, and wish more people could read it, somehow.
The Clever Little Tailor
Dos Kluge Shnayderl or the Clever Little Tailor, the titular hero of another one of my grandfather’s books, is as smart as Shmerl isn’t. My grandfather was obsessed with intelligence. Sages and/or idiots richly populate his entire body of work. Of course, even then a person was not one or the other. In Kluge Hent, a character was gifted in being able to make anything with his hands, even though he was unable to read. It seems uniquely fitting to me that Solomon Simon’s daughter (my aunt) Judith Simon Bloch devoted her career to working with children with developmental disabilities, and made major intellectual and pragmatic advances in that area of educational work.
The Kluge Shnayderl book is a string of set pieces, in which a poor Jewish tailor outsmarts one opponent after another. He is a trickster and even, when necessary, a thief (but never for real), who lives by his wits. As with the Chelm stories and The Wandering Beggar, many of these stories are straight out of the established folk tradition. One of them, for example, reads almost exactly like the story Jack the Giant Killer, the goyishe version of which I heard as a child.
This book is a little patchy. Some of the stories are, in fact, clever and amusing. Some, however are not. A peculiarity of my learn-by-translating curriculum is that I have not generally read ahead. The motivation to find out what happens keeps me going. I have learned to have faith in my grandfather. In both Amolike Yidn and Roberts Ventures there were individual early chapters that frankly were just not good— enough so as to keep even my mother from reading further at first. But in both cases, there were rich rewards for plowing on.
An Old Companion
Here I will admit to having taken a sneak peek ahead, though I have kept myself from reading. So I did know that something better was waiting for me on the other end, even as I just trudged my way through a somewhat dreary episode in which the Clever Tailor outwits an evil Priest, a chapter that somehow manages to combine tedium and sadism. And now, a little over three quarters of the way through the book, my patience has been rewarded. My childhood companion Shmerl wandered into the book.
Authors frequently revisit beloved characters. Sometimes, it’s wonderful, and sometimes it’s a mistake. Usually fans are eager for more, no matter what. Series have become the norm rather than the exception in children’s literature. I myself am not at all unhappy that another Harry Potter movie is coming out this year. Of course, there’s always a question whether lightning can strike twice, or whether an author can even successfully reenter her/his own world of imagination at all. But in this case, the books Shmerl Nar and Dos Kluge Shnayderl were originally published only two years apart, in 1931 and 1933. I am the only one to have experienced so many decades between them.
Shmerl arrives fresh from the events of the second-to-last chapter of his own book. He has witnessed a pogrom provoked by the Cossack Gonta [an actual historical villain, who apparently grew even larger in Jewish folklore than in real life]. He has lost his nerve and his verve. He is weary and traumatized by the violence he has witnessed. Hungry and with nowhere to go, he tags along with Shnayderl, after the two of them meet by chance in the woods. Who knows what these two heros will not be able to accomplish as they join forces and hit the road together?