A Thought or Two About Nostalgia

When I was in Canada last week, the Globe and Mail ran an article about nostalgia and Trump [link]:

In it, Cathal Kelly says, “The current political moment might be called the new Age of Nostalgia.” One interesting observation he makes is that when asked when America used to be great, many of Trump’s followers seem to be nostalgic for Ronald Reagan, whose own campaign slogan was also “Let’s make America great again.” As an old Hollywood actor, Reagan seemed, in 1980, to embody the optimism of a previous generation. In other words, we are nostalgic for nostalgia, and the past isn’t what it used to be. As Kelly describes it, nostalgia is a longing for a past that never really existed. And the politicians who appeal to it are, “peddlers of false memories and delusory reassurance.”

The dangers of nostalgia are palpable, and yet I’ve decided to devote a fair portion of my time to learning Yiddish. What can be more nostalgic than trying to immerse yourself in a vanished civilization?

Furthermore, my grandfather, whose life and thought I’m trying to understand via his writings, was viewed by some as a ‘conservative’, even a ‘reactionary’ in the context of his radical surroundings. He believed that in forging a secular Yiddish culture, the baby had been thrown out with the bathwater. He also described his childhood in idealized terms, and once literally referred to the shtetl as “The Crown of Jewish Creation”.

I will keep reading his work. Avrom Lichtenbaum is offering an online class through the Workmen’s Circle next term about the Yiddish essay, and he will be including at least one essay of my grandfather’s in the syllabus. I am gratified that my personal quest seems to be generating some small ripple effects. And I am still eager to know what Solomon Simon valued and why. But as I do so, I will maintain a critical, even skeptical, stance regarding exactly where bathwater leaves off and baby begins.

This term, again via the Workmen’s Circle, I’ve been reading Sholem Aleichem and Mendele Mocher-Sforim. Sholem Aleichem’s description of Jewish life, though often charming, was far sharper in the original than the filtered version that was received in the English-speaking world. But Mendele is positively the antidote to nostalgia. He paints the shtetlekh as being fully as corrupt as they were superstitious, not to mention ignorant of the wider world. In one story, Di Entdekung fun Volin (The Discovery of Vohlin), he describes a shtetl that suffered from fire, then from famine. When a deadly epidemic followed, it was time to act. The town leadership raised everyone’s taxes, and appointed a commission to go around inspecting everyones mezuzes, to make sure the scrolls were kosher and intact. The rabbi ordered a community-wide fast (during a famine!). Emissaries were sent to the south to beg from other Jewish communities, but devastation by fire is apparently “not valuable merchandise” to use for appeals, as there were fires all over the region with depressing regularity. And so on…

In other words, the more you get into details of what life was like, the more you see the many beautiful and laudible features of East European Jewish communal life as being in spite of, not because of, the day-to-day conditions of that world. No one should want to go back to that time or place.

If the danger of nostalgia is to use idealization of the past to avoid (rather than reflect on) the nitty-gritty details of the present, then the antidote could be more detailed reflection on the past. I would suspect, for example, that medieval re-enactors who take their hobby most seriously are the ones who are most grateful to live the bulk of their lives in the contemporary world. I’d be interested in my niece and nephew’s take on this—they participate in Society for Creative Anachronism’s role playing festivals, but spend the rest of their year working in high tech jobs.


I’ve been asked to post here the lyrics to the song Dem Milners Treren (The Miller’s Tears) here. Here they are, from a book Yidishe Folkslider, published by the Argentine Yivo in 1958. The original version, published by Mark Warshavsky in 1901, is spelled oddly and spreads over three pages, but if you need that, I can come up with it. The word nostalgia comes from the words for ‘pain’ and ‘home’. In this song, the singer sings about his home that he is being forced to leave.dem-milners-treren-1958-argentine-yivo

Note the lyric, “There were days / I’d like to remember / If I had a bit of happiness… /…
But no answer comes back.” This story is one of years of toil, and of losses, followed by forced displacement. Yes, the displacement is tragic, but it is ambiguous whether has any kind of ‘golden age’ to look back to. The implication I draw is he does not.

These ‘folksongs’ were written  by a specific person at a specific time, and a particular kind of person. An educated man, and a maskil (a freethinker, or modernizer). Mark Warshavsky was a lawyer, who wrote his songs as a hobby and performed them at parties among his educated urban set. He brought his songs to Sholem Aleichem, who loved them and made sure they got published. Thus the ‘folk’ in these folksongs, is viewed from the perspective of high culture. Warshavsky gave us the Bekher Song (bim bam ba bim bam) and Oyfn Pripitchik, among others.

It seems the idea of the Folk, of an authentic culture that predates a self-conscious culture, is often itself a construction. In a way this is comforting, at least to those of us who believe we can actively choose which parts of our identity to identify with and to nurture.

Here is the song as sung by Sidor Belarsky:


That link also includes the English translation of the lyrics. And here is the same song as sung by Theodore Bikel. This is my preferred version– being the one I grew up on. Nostalgia is not always bad:


[Finally, I can’t resist a grammatical footnote, about the ‘Dem’ in Dem Milners Treren. Possessive constructions (the tears that belong to the miller) are an exception to the normal way that articles are inflected by case. The article in the dative form attaches to the possessing person, not the object. Thus, ‘dem’, rather than ‘di’ or ‘der’, no matter what object the miller has.]


2 thoughts on “A Thought or Two About Nostalgia

  1. This is a well-written, thought-provoking article. I have often thought about nostalgia as an illusionary construct, or, perhaps more correctly, a delusionary one.


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