It is hard for me even to grasp the fact that the Yivo Summer Yiddish Program is really over. The closing ceremony or siyum yesterday morning was moving and delightful. I greatly admire my fellow students who sang, who wrote speeches, who recited poetry and acted in skits, all in Yiddish of course. I did my part by being an appreciative spectator.
In one of the talks, a former Yivo summer student was quoted as saying that this program gives the word “intensive” a whole new meaning. Though I have gathered a hipsh bisl (a fair bit of) material I hope to share here in due course, I have not kept up my blog up this summer, mostly because of how all encompassing it was. For that matter, I haven’t kept up with much of anything– from the specific ways in which Trump has been acting out, to the coming Olympic games. While I was immersed, I did little to reach out to friends, to monitor the drought in Ithaca, or to absorb the specific details of the latest publicized police killings.
I spent my last day in the archive Thursday gathering a few more of my grandfather’s articles that were not in his books. In other words, I worked up to the end. At Itzik Gotesman’s talk on Thursday night, a fellow summer program student saw me reading one of those Yiddish articles and shook his head. “Give it a rest.” I guess I got caught up in the spirit of the thing.
A measure of that spirit and that intensity is that on our last day in literature class, rather than end on something light, our teacher had us read a Lamed Shapiro short story called The Kiss. “You are unlikely to read him on your own,” she explained. In one of the coincidences that I have gotten used to by now, the article by my grandfather I’d been reading that same day opened with a reference to Lamed Shapiro. In a piece about writing for children in Yiddish, he cited “Lamed Shapiro’s lovely little booklet, The Writer Goes to Kheder.”
The Kiss, however is not lovely, and not for children. It opens with a man sitting on a chair in his house, trembling with fear, listening to the sounds of a pogrom outside. The protagonist, Shakhne, is depicted as helpless and passive. Only after the drunken rioters break into his house does he, pathetically, rouse himself to try to hide from them. Though, as our teacher aptly put it, Lamed Shapiro spares the reader nothing, I will spare you, and say merely that he is savagely brutalized and then, that having not been sufficient, humiliated. The story hinges around a moment when one of the attackers goes beyond physical sadism in order to force the Shakhne to participate in his own victimization.
Shapiro asks what it is to be a human being compared to being an animal. He asks whether everyone has a breaking point. He asks whether the victim is in a superior moral position only insofar as he is helpless to act. And how should we expect people to act when self-defense would be suicide?
Korryn Gaines, who was killed in Maryland last Monday, is unlikely to become a symbol in the movement to end the killing of black citizens by police. Above all, people are unlikely to rally behind her as a symbol because she had a gun, and she threatened the police with it. In her home. With her child present. She apparently did not believe the police had the authority to arrest her, not when she was driving without proper registration and not when her door was kicked down. As for us, because the police stopped the video she was recording before they killed her, we may never know for sure exactly what happened.
We are left with questions. I am unsure how to judge when the right to self-defense includes or does not include the right to defend yourself from police officers who kick down your door. From a practical point of view, fighting back is suicidal in this context. It seems to me that the world we live in rhymes with the world of Lamed Shapiro. It is a world where being powerless does not make you noble, and a world where self-defense may be suicidal. A world without heroes. A world that does not let us off the hook for witnessing the violence around us. That forces us to question not just what the characters in the story should do, but what we should do.
The word ‘lehavdil’ is an interesting word. It is used to say, “these things should not be compared, but I am, anyway.” A pogrom is different than a police attempt to arrest someone who has broken the law. An armed victim is different than an unarmed victim. I did not say that the worlds are the same, but that they ‘rhyme’. African Americans live in a world where a class of citizens has the power to take their lives without consequences. Whether or not one specific story maps exactly onto another should not obscure that crucial fact. How could African Americans possibly act towards police officers in a way that would not be distorted, from one point of view or another?
A fellow student commented that he expected something different when we began reading a story titled The Kiss, on our last day of literature class. Instead, a summer of hard work ended hard. And it has hardly ended. I am far from fluent yet, and even if I were, that would only be the beginning. “What will you students do with the Yiddish you learn at Yivo?” wondered our academic director Sheva Zucker at yesterday’s closing ceremony. She hoped that we will find our own best ways to use our Yiddish, whether in cultural, personal, or scholarly endeavors. She hoped that we not only keep learning but pass what we learn along to others. I don’t have a clear and specific vision for myself yet in that ongoing work. Perhaps that’s why I like even more what another teacher, Chava Lapin said. She will know, she said, that her work as a teacher has been successful if we leave with more questions than we had when we came. Check.