Last summer, I began exploring my grandfather’s archive by looking at letters. Letters make up the bulk of the material there. Shloime’s handwriting was terrible and I was brand new at reading handwritten material, but most of the letters were the ones other people had written to him, anyway. This tends to be true of estates and archives in general. Back then there were no ‘sent’ folders. It would have been a major effort to retain copies of outgoing mail.
I had very little archive time, and the letters did not promise an easy payoff – many letters were completely indecipherable to me, even the ones I could read were extremely slow going, and many of those dealt with mundane matters. But I did report with some excitement here about how, on the very first day I stumbled onto a two-page letter from the poet and dramatist H. Leyvik. The first page began, “Dear friend Dr. Sh. Simon. I’m sending you the sonnet. I think this is the poem you are missing…”
The second page had a handwritten poem: “Sonet Tsu Tseyn”, or Sonnet to Teeth. I could not find any such poem among Leyvik’s published work. It seems the great poet had personally written a bit of lighthearted verse directly to my grandfather, in honor of his dual profession, or perhaps even as payment in exchange for some dental work. It begins on a mock-serious note:
“Lend me, sadness, a little joy
I will pay you back double…”
And then I set that poem aside. It’s hard to describe, let alone explain, how masterful I can be at bits and pieces, and how much of a struggle it is to get something more substantive done.
Really, my talent is for beginnings. No surprise that one of my best finds came on my first day in the archive. But even in the summer language program itself, I began to learn to read handwriting, began to get a better grip on basic grammar, began to accept that spoken language will be crucial to my literary projects, and so, began to pay more attention to certain components of speech. And I began to find some of his writings other than his books— articles in literary journals and newspapers. This talent is one reason I love blogging and also lyric poetry, where it’s possible to do something worthwhile in a concentrated burst. Yes, I am also capable of playing the long game when I have to. I did get a PhD, and I have now translated a couple of children’s books from one end to the other. But it’s harder, and goes against type.
Can you tell I’m stalling? That whole last paragraph along with this one are meant to convey the passage of time. I set the poem aside, perhaps for the end of the summer. But by then I had other projects. This fall I have been taking a couple of online Yiddish classes, have continued researching Simon’s newspaper and journal work, and have gone back to a second draft of my translation of Dos Kluge Shnayderl.
Did I put off reading this undiscovered gem to save it as a treat for later? Or was it that something seemed incongruous about the tone, so that I waited to decipher it until I was a little more confident? I don’t know for sure myself. But two weeks ago when I had an offer of help— a more fluent friend who wanted to read poetry with me— I dug it out and looked at it again.
In fact, I am a better reader now. It goes so slowly I lose sight of the fact that I am, in fact, learning. I was able to decipher most of the text and type it up to share with my friend. Luckily, his handwriting was clear. Or, mostly clear. One difference, between a teeny tiny straight line (the handwritten letter yud) and a small straight line (the letter vov) meant the poem was actually not what I had thought it was at all.
The title of the poem is not “Sonet tsu Tseyn” ציין (teeth) at all, but Sonet tsu Tsion . ציון Sonnet to Zion.
When I make mistakes like that I naturally feel sheepish, even a little ridiculous. [Never mind that the fault really lies in the original designer of the Hebrew alphabet. The letters yud, vov, and langer-nun are much too similar, distinguished only by length.] The greater the excitement the greater the deflation– just like I felt last summer when I gathered a whole group of people around me at the Yiddish Book Center to show them a copy I’d found of Mani Leib’s Sonnets that the poet had inscribed to my grandfather! “With a friendship of years,” it said. But I had not read the inscription all the way to the end. In fact, it was given to him by someone named Roshelle. Later, I learned those sonnets weren’t even published until after Mani Leib’s death.
Just so, I had gotten all excited about the so-called Sonnet to Teeth, and had shown it to some other people, and gotten them excited, too. What I thought was an amazing find turned out not to be. It was like a bad episode of Antiques Road Show, where everything is just junk. This feeling of deflation is accompanied by embarrassment. “Why did I get so excited before I even knew what I was doing or what I had?” Then, “What am I trying to accomplish, anyway?” And, finally, “I am way, way out of my league here. I started too old to ever get a handle on anything as complex as Yiddish language and culture. Who do I think I am?” So says the inner voice.
But, in fact, the real foolishness is this voice that reproaches. That “somebody named Roshelle” was in fact Roshelle Weprinsky, an important poet in her own right, and Mani Leib’s life companion. The object I thought a valuable treasure was, in fact, valuable; just for a slightly different reason than I thought. So, too, the Leyvik sonnet may or may not turn out to be a find. But even if not, I will have learned something. And in the end, I would rather be at least a little bit like the Chelmites, who rush off joyously at any new idea, despite having been wrong repeatedly in the past. At least they get to feel excited. At least they try.
Again we come around to the pleasures and virtues of not knowing. Not smugness in one’s ignorance, but the wonder of not knowing on the way to finding out. There’s a quote I like very much, attributed to Jeff Bezos: “If you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment.” Similarly, if you know what something is worth ahead of time, it’s probably not a discovery.