Friday, January 27, 2012


 It’s only January and I'm reading what will probably be my favorite book this year.  Outwitting History is the true story of “how a young man rescued a million books and saved a vanishing civilization” as it says on the cover.  They were Yiddish books that Aaron Lansky was saving, and with that,Yiddish literature, the Yiddish language, Jewish culture, and modern Jewish history of the last 1000 years.  No small feat.

Not only is the story fascinating, but it is engagingly told.  Only into the second chapter and I found myself laughing one minute and crying the next.  It was 1975.  Lansky and his fellow Yiddish students were living and studying in Massachusetts and had a hard time finding Yiddish books to read while they were learning the language.  Finally their professor told them that if they wanted to find Yiddish books, they needed to go to New York, to the Lower East Side.  That was where Yiddish-readers used to live and that’s where they would find Yiddish books. 

Off they go.  They drive to the Lower East Side, park their borrowed van and pass by Guss’s Pickles on Hester Street where their professor had asked them to get him a gallon of half-sours.

“I had been to New York just once before, to visit the World’s Fair in 1964, and never to the Lower East Side.  Stepping out of the van I was amazed at how Jewish it still seemed.  Guss’s was just one of several pickle emporia where workers in dirty aprons and rolled-up sleeves plunged their bare hands into big barrels of brine, coming up with half- and full-sour pickles, bright red peppers, fistfuls of sauerkraut, and heads of pickled cauliflower.  Open barrels covered the sidewalk for half a block, and the entire street reeked of garlic, dill, and vinegar.”

I also visited the World’s Fair in 1964.  Unfortunately, I don’t think I have ever been to the Lower East Side.  Nevertheless, I could remember the smell of those pickles.

Lansky and his friends went to the Garden Cafeteria in the Lower East Side looking for Yiddish speakers who could lead them to books they could buy.  When they entered, the cashier explained the system: you get a card and whenever you ordered a dish the server would punch a hole.  You could spend all afternoon schmoozing, eating, and accumulating holes and you’d pay on your way out.  It took some explanation and those who were waiting behind got impatient:

“Hurry up!  What’s the matter mit you?”

“Can’t you see you got hungry people here?”

Nu already, for what are you dillydallying?”

“The Spanish-speaking servers were holding their own in the multilingual shouting match.  A bit unnerved, we ordered as best we could, piling our trays high with blintzes and sour cream, kasha varnishkes and mushroom gravy, varenikes with fried onions, matzo brei and several other milkhig (dairy) specials.  Then we tried to find a table.  It goes without saying that none of the five of us looked like your typical Garden Cafeteria customer: We were fifty years too young, we spoke English, and every one of us sported long hair and jeans.  But no one seemed to notice.  In fact, as we squeezed ourselves into five empty seats at one of the cafeteria’s long communal tables, the people already sitting there didn’t even look up: They were far too busy arguing, engaged in a passionate discussion of some heated subject beyond our linguistic reach, which is to say that they were all speaking in Yiddish and all speaking at once.  Hands were waving, fingers pointing, sentences punctuated with heaping spoonfuls of sour cream.  It was only when one particularly vociferous old man banged his cup on his tray in a dramatic bid for attention and sent hot coffee splashing in every direction that someone finally noticed the five young newcomers in their midst.  The argument came to a sudden halt.”

Once they were noticed, there began a conversation between the young people and all the cafeteria regulars, with the young people carrying out their part half in English and half in University Yiddish in which they explained they were looking to buy Yiddish books.

“We were scrunched together as the news spread and more and more elderly Jews sat down at the table or leaned over our shoulders, asking us a hundred questions that, in their impatience, they then answered themselves.”

I know these people!  Where do I remember them from?  When I was little, my parents and their friends spoke Polish, not Yiddish.  Polish-speakers have a different accent in English, a different inflection, and a different way of organizing sentences.  And yet the people who Lansky describes throughout the book are so familiar.  They are part of me.

When I was living in Berkeley I would go periodically to Los Angeles to visit my mom and often took the opportunity to have something to eat at Cantor’s on Fairfax, to get my Jewish fix.  I remember those waitresses with the bouffant hairdos, all of them of a certain age.  Probably about the age I am now.  On one visit, when I was buying bread at their bakery, one of these ladies told me I should dye my hair, that I wasn’t that old and there was no reason to have my hair grey.  What impertinence!  What chutzpah!  I miss that lady and all the others.  I wish I could drive over to Fairfax and get my Jewish fix.  I wonder if you can still see those big Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles being driven by little old men who are so short that their heads don’t appear above the back of the driver’s seat and the cars look like they are moving along of their own accord.

In addition to telling many wonderful stories of people he met in his book rescue mission (Woody Guthrie’s widow, i.e., Arlo’s mother included), Lansky also discusses why the quest was important and it wasn't only about food:

“The significance of the books we’ve recovered cannot be overstated. For a thousand years roughly three-quarters of all Jews spoke Yiddish as their first or only language. In the second half of the 19th century, as enlightenment made its way into Eastern Europe, Yiddish gave rise to the single most concentrated outpouring of literary and artistic creativity in Jewish history. Twenty-five thousand titles appeared, including novels, plays, short stories, poetry, essays, memoirs, and scholarship. There was a renaissance of Jewish music, theater, visual arts, film, and more. All this boundless and often contentious inventiveness shared the same underlying theme: how best to live as Jews in a modern world.

“It is difficult today to grasp how much Yiddish literature and culture once meant to East European Jews and their descendants. Uprooted from ancestral homes, cut off from a way of life that had prevailed for centuries, they turned to Yiddish books for comfort and guidance in a fast-changing world. Rare was the Ashkenazic Jewish home without collections of I. L. Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, Sholem Asch, and other popular Yiddish writers. We’ve found Yiddish books in every state, in every Canadian province, in Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Australia, England, France, and, of course, Russia and Eastern Europe. Time and time again elderly Jews handed us their libraries with the words “Ot iz mayn yerushe—Here is my inheritance.” In their eyes, they possessed no greater treasure.”

In my home the books were by Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Jack London.  Still, maybe because I live so far from a Jewish community, because there are no Jews nearby to schmooze with, and no blintzes, chopped herring salad, smoked whitefish, or kasha (if you think you can buy buckwheat groats just any old place, you are sadly mistaken), maybe because I live beyond the Pale, I miss all this food, and these people, and this culture.  I love this book and I’m grateful to Aaron Lansky for having given me so many enjoyable hours of reading and remembering, and for his having taken the initiative to save my history from the dumpster.

Do read this book!  If you can get it from a library, then mazel tov.  But if you’re going to buy it, BUY IT HERE!! from the Amazon Shop on my blog!  OK?  Nu, already, for what are you waiting?

Friday, January 20, 2012

Bakeries and Pirates

This morning I met my friend Eve at Caballé the local pastisseria.  Most of the English people who live here call it Fleca.  I suppose they don’t know that fleca means bakery, that there are several flecas in the village, and that the name of this bakery is Caballé.  Caballé used to be one of the few places where you could enjoy your coffee without any cigarette smoke.  Another was the other pastisseria in town.  At that time, bakeries, by law, were the only sure no-smoking havens (although you can drink there -- they all serve beer and brandy).  Now smoking is forbidden in any café, bar, or restaurant.  But I stick with Caballé because I think it has the best coffee and the best morning pastries in the village.  Unfortunately, for good cakes and fancy pastries, you have to leave the village and search elsewhere.

Today’s TV news is of the arrest of seven persons in New Zealand, accused of internet piracy.  I never heard of Megaupload until today.  I’ve never tried to download anything for free.  I believe in the right of the author/artist to receive compensation for their work and their creative output.  I never buy albums or movies from street vendors either, knowing that those are pirated copies.  When I want an album or movie, I rent it from the library or buy it from a reputable retailer.  But there have been times when I’ve only wanted one cut off an album.  I tried to download it legally.  I tried with Amazon but they detected that I was connected to the internet from somewhere outside the U.S. and the download was not allowed.  So I tried Amazon UK, all of us being part of Europe.  But there I ran into the same problem.  I was not in the UK, therefore I could not pay and download the song I wanted, although I could purchase the CD.  I badly needed to hear "I Will Survive" at any time day or night, so in the end my friend Chaim sent the song to me, good friend that he is.  So I ask you, if they don’t allow you to download legally, is it any wonder that people do it illegally?

Otherwise, there is nothing much new here except for my water leak, but I will talk about that later, once my trusty plumber (and electrician) Ramon finds and repairs it.  

Friday, January 13, 2012

Kitty Care in Spain

On 20 December my cat Felix became ill with what turned out to be acute Pancreatitis.  That evening I took him to the vet where he received two shots: one antibiotic and the other for I’m-not-sure-what, either for pain or to aid his digestion.

The next day we were back for another shot of antibiotic.  If he had improved, the improvement was slight.  Either that day or the next the vet took a blood sample to determine what the trouble was, and that was when Pancreatitis was diagnosed.  On Friday he still seemed poorly so the vet hooked him up to an intravenous and kept him at the clinic overnight.  The next day I went in to get him since they said he didn’t need to be hooked up any longer and of course would be more comfortable at home.

For about two weeks, Felix had to go in every day for an antibiotic shot.  Marcel, the vet, came in for Christmas to see him as well as the following day which is also a holiday here.  At some point early on, I thought that maybe the time had come to put Felix down since he was hardly improving.  I am very much against overdoing medical treatments for pets.  It’s not just the money, but I strongly believe that if the prognosis is poor or the animal is suffering, it is kinder to end their suffering, something we can’t do for our loved ones or ourselves.  In that way, our pets are the lucky ones.

But Marcel had assured me that although his recovery was going slowly, that was to be expected with ailments of the pancreas, and that he was, in fact, getting slowly better.  He didn’t think that Felix’s time had come yet.

I don’t have a count of how many visits we actually made.  At some point around New Year, Felix graduated to pills and didn’t have to go in daily any longer, although we still had to make visits.  The 9th of January was Felix’s last visit.  At that point I paid for about two weeks of daily visits (including holiday visits), two weeks of daily injections, the blood tests, an overnight stay with the intravenous, and the antibiotic and digestive control pills they had given me to give him at home.  The total bill was 162 euros.

This incredibly low bill had nothing to do with socialized medicine for pets.  I have had arguments with some Americans who think that socialized medicine for humans would rob them of some kind of freedom – freedom to choose their doctor or to have to be on a waiting list for treatment, or I-don’t-know-what.  These people invariably point to Canada as a country where socialized medical care does not work well.

I don’t know anything about Canada’s health care system.  So I tell them that if they looked at Europe, they would find that all the EU countries has socialized health care and many of these countries have systems that are enviable and that compare favorably with that of the US private system.  In any case, anyone covered by the national scheme who wants private care or a private supplement, can buy it here at small expense.

The reason for this is not only that the national systems are paid for by tax payers.  It is also because doctors here (and pharmacists) do not make as much money as American doctors do, and insurance companies do not get rich off of health insurance.  The fact is that health care in Europe is regarded as a service and not as a business and that, I believe, is the heart of the matter.

Do I digress?  Not really.  Because it seems to me that health care for pets is also considered a service more than a business and that alone can account for the relatively tiny bill I received for so much care for my sick cat.  And for that I am very grateful.

Friday, January 6, 2012

First of 2012

Felix took his first two pills of 2012 on the first morning of the year, as he had been doing for the last few days of 2011.  In addition to the pancreas problem he developed a cold and bronchitis.  He has been a very congested kitty but is slowly recovering from all his ailments.  I’m hoping that 2012 develops into a better year for him.

The first baby of 2012 born in Catalunya was born at exactly 12 am to immigrant parents.  The first baby was followed 30 seconds later by the second baby, also to immigrant parents.  In fact, in the ten years that I’ve been living here and hearing these reports, the first babies have always been immigrant babies.

My first breakfast of 2012 consisted of French toast with pure Vermont grade A maple syrup.  Yum.  Someone gave me the syrup a few years ago and I had been saving it for the right occasion.  That occasion came today with a special breakfast to inaugurate the new year in hope of its turning out to be a good one – the year in which I sell my villa and move into an apartment.

My first lunch of 2012 did not turn out as well as my first breakfast and hopefully is not a sign of how the year will turn out.  I had made a nice salmon and mashed potato (with crème fraiche, onion, and bacon) lunch yesterday and today I cooked the other salmon steak and reheated the remaining potatoes.  The salmon smelled a bit odd when I took it from the fridge, but I figured fish often does.  When I started in eating it, it also tasted odd.  That, I decided, was too much, so I ended up having a lunch of lots and lots of mashed potatoes followed by a very nice apple crumble I had made as the first dessert of 2012.  The salmon ended up in the first garbage of 2012.

The first evening of television of 2012 was just as boring as most of the evenings of the last few months leading up to it.

The first case of domestic (they call it gender) violence in Catalunya occurred in Girona on New Year’s day when a man killed his wife and then committed suicide.  The couple, in their 50s, was Ukrainian and had been living here for six years.  When crimes are committed here, they tell you where the people involved are from.

My first phone call of the year came on Monday 2 January at 10:30 am, the first working day of the year and was from a local realtor.  I was surprised he was already back at work.  He called to ask about the price of the villa because he had someone who he would be showing it to soon.  What a great first phone call that was!

Felix’s first time playing in 2012 was on Tuesday 3 January in the evening.  He has been improving day by day, but this is a significant sign that he is really feeling better and is almost back to normal.

Wednesday’s game between Barcelona and Osasuna, the first soccer game played at Camp Nou in 2012, was the first match ever in Spain to prohibit smoking in the stadium.  Força Barça!  Go Barça, smoke-free!

I hope all your firsts were good ones and that the year turns out well for you.