A Yidisher Shrayber in Yidn-Land

When I feel I have too much to handle, I often add something. I trade the bad feeling of not having gotten my task done because I’m not diligent or organized enough, for the good feeling of just getting starting on a task. Of course this just ramps up the whole cycle. Whether I would do better to stick to one thing at a time is moot. It is like asking whether I would be more productive if I were a different person. But if Robert Benchley is right, then I am actually optimizing my output: “Any one can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.”

Recently, in order not to do what I’m ‘supposed to’ be doing, I began to forage for what other people wrote about Solomon Simon. Makes sense, since I don’t even have time to read what he wrote himself.

So in an idle moment I went to the Historical Jewish Press collection, digitized at the University of Tel Aviv [link here]. I entered Solomon Simon’s name in the subject field rather than the author field. The database is clunky, but I eventually figured it out. I got only a few results, and some of those were just a one-line entry in a list of recently published books.

But I did find an interesting-looking article from 1964 in an Israeli Yiddish monthly called Lebns Fragn (not to be confused with a paper of the same name from interwar Poland). It begins:

“It is rare indeed for a Yiddish writer who visits Israel from abroad to take an interest in the Arbeter Ring’s Yiddish afternoon schools, and even rarer for one to happen to write about it. So we wish to mention with gratitude the well-known Yiddish writer Dr. Solomon Simon, who visited Israel a year ago and showed a warm interest in our children who study Yiddish.”

It mentions that Simon visited the Arbeter Ring’s summer colony, and then continues: “After returning to America he published a long article about his visit to Israel in the journal Culture and Education in January, 1964, several excerpts from which we will give here…”

Hah! Joke’s on me. I pause in collecting his journal articles, only to be pointed to a journal article I did not know about. I want to read about what other people thought of him and instead the article quotes him extensively in his own words! You can go, but you cannot leave.


Mir iz gut. I have it good. So says my Zeidy on his way to visit the Kinder Koloniye. It’s a beautiful day, and a feeling of peace issues from the surrounding fields and trees as they drive into the country. This was his second trip to Israel.

Writing about my grandfather’s attitude towards the Jewish State, I have emphasized his misgivings about militarism and state power. Next up on my own reading list are several sections of his book Jews among the Nations, in which he spells out his “Diaspora Nationalism” stance more fully. But it is important not to oversimplify his skepticism about Zionism. He had a brother in Israel. He loved the people of Israel and fretted about them. And he was amazed at many of the blessings inherent in the Jewish State, even as he felt betrayed and wounded by its treatment of Yiddish language and culture.

Also important to realize is that pacifism and his skepticism about whether state power could be wielded morally were not the sum total of his critique. He was just as critical of the effects Zionism had on Jews in the U.S., who instead of creating a self-sufficient and fully realized Jewish culture in America, were always looking to Israel. He had originally hoped for something in the U.S. analogous to the old world, except without the oppression. Jews would live near each other and create communities, with their own cultural practices, and their literature in their own language. Of course by 1964, it was quite obvious that (with the exception of the Orthodox) this was not going to happen.

But these disappointments were far from his mind on the day of this trip to the Yiddish summer colony in Israel. In fact, he was struck by an unfamiliar and liberating feeling that he could experience only in that tiny country. The sensation of not being in the minority.

As I said, he begins the article admiring the landscape he is being driven through on his way there. “…peace pours out from the fields and gardens. I forget my resentments and problems. Jewish territory spread out as far as eye can see, with Jews sitting peacefully on their land without fear. And I have it good. Ikh bin itst in Yidn-Land un ikh for zen Yidishe kinder in a zumer-kemp. A Yidisher shrayber fort tsu Yidishe kinder.”

The difficulty in translating these last two simple sentences into English marks the distance between me and my grandfather, and the distance between him and what the world was becoming.

The first sentence is easier. It can more or less accurately be given as, “I am now in Jew-Land, traveling to see Jewish children in a summer camp.” In context, it reflects that sensation of being in a majority, in a place where security is not dependent on someone else. The Jews sit peacefully on their farms. By contrast, where he had grown up, Jews were forbidden to own farmland, by law. The towns might feel relatively safe, but when one ventured into the country it was clear it was not our country. A summer camp seems like an ordinary pleasure to us, but it was an extraordinary pleasure to him.

But the second sentence cannot be straightforwardly rendered in English. He loves visiting and speaking with children, but there’s something else in there. It is dependent on the double meaning of the word ‘Yidish’ to mean both ‘Jewish’ and ‘Yiddish’. A yidisher shrayber fort tsu yidishe kinder. “A Yiddish/Jewish writer going to see Jewish/Yiddish children”. These Jewish children are going to Yiddish camp. This writer writes in Jewish. And it reflects backwards onto the first sentence. For this moment, his national self and his writer self and his religious self and his surroundings are all in harmony. For this moment he can hold on to the sensation, or the illusion, or the wish that Yiddish and Jewish are one thing, as they had been for the majority of Jews for a thousand years.


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