I finished Lansky’s Outwitting History this week and am still relishing and pondering. I’m sorry I never learned to speak Yiddish – a language described as both subversive and deeply expressive. You’ve got to love a language that has so many words for nerd, and in which kvetching approaches an art form.
I’m still thinking about some of the many interesting people Lansky describes. One of my favorites is Mrs. Orloff and the story she told about a neighbor and friend she used to have who was a Yiddish actress. Bella Ballerina had once been in a play on
Second Avenue where she portrayed a Jewish woman who abandoned her children to run off with another man:
“For years after that she couldn’t walk down the street without people yelling at her and spitting, ‘Feh!’ they would say, ‘leaving three little children like that. How could you do such a thing?’”
I learned that Sholem Aleichem, probably the most famous of Yiddish writers (everyone is familiar with him at least indirectly because it was his story of Tevye the Milkman upon which Fiddler on the Roof was based), is buried in the Workmen’s Circle cemetery in
Queens. When I was in London I went to look for Karl Marx’s grave in . I would have looked for Sholem Aleichem in Highgate Cemetery Queens if I had known.
Lansky works with one woman whose war years resemble those of my parents. In her case, she “had fled to no-man’s land on the Soviet frontier, eluded the border guards, suffered in Siberia, escaped to
Kazakhstan, and after the war, made her way to Canada by way of .” My parents had also fled the Germans to end up with the Soviets, suffered in Siberia, stayed some time in Kazakhstan, and after the war, made their way to New York by way of France and the Dominican Republic. Sweden
Lansky, in his book rescue work, found that Jews see in Yiddish what they want to see:
“For atheists it was Jewishness without religion; for feminists, Judaism free from patriarchy; for those uncomfortable with Israeli politics, nationalism without Zionism; for socialists, the voice of proletarian struggle… Although there was truth in each of these characterizations, they remained fragmentary at best; those who espoused them had rarely read deeply in what was, after all, an incredibly rich and multifaceted literature.”
Then there’s Tevye who, in Sholem Aleichem’s story, has an argument with his daughter Chava. Chava is in love with a Russian peasant – a goy, telling her father that God created all men equal. This does not please Tevye who employs his usual manner of quoting from holy sources to make his point. His wife Golda interrupts to say that they have done enough talking out there and that the borscht is ready and on the table. Tevye replies disparagingly “We are discussing important matters and she comes barging in with her milkhiger (dairy) borscht.” “My milkhiger borsht,” Golda retorts, “may be just as important as all those important matters of yours.”
Lansky notes that “In the end, Golda suggests, it’s borscht, more than Hebrew quotations, that will hold the Jewish people together.”
I have never read deeply, I’ve hardly read Yiddish literature at all. And yet I believe Yiddish is important and I’m grateful that others are working to save and revive it. Me, I’m with Golda. Borscht, bagels lox and cream cheese, potato latkes, chicken soup with knaidlach. Culture isn’t only literature. Golda had a good point.