Monday, June 28, 2010

A Great Book and A Story

I buy a lot of books from and from  I usually buy used, especially if the book is an old one and the hardcover is available.  I'd rather have the ancient, battered copy from the past than a brand spanking new reprint, often in paperback. 

Anyway, Amazon often recommends books for me based on what I have purchased.  "Outwitting History:  The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books" was one of their recommendations for me.  When I saw that the story was about someone searching for and collecting old, rare, out of print books, I knew I would LOVE the story - and I did.

I've also always been fascinated by history.  This book contained both rare book adventures and history, a history that was disappearing when the author began his quest.  The history of the Jews in diaspora in Europe is rich and interesting, although, as can be expected if one knows anything about Jewish history, there is tragedy and violence as well from the beginning. 

But most tragic is the potential loss of an entire people, together with their language, their villages and towns and their literary heritage.  Hitler almost accomplished this destruction, and, to a great extent, in Europe today, the destruction is indeed complete. 

What has saved the Yiddish culture is the massive influx of Jewish immigrants into the United States from Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  They brought their books, their poetry, their plays, their culture, their food and their language.  Many of them became Vaudeville entertainers and then movie stars, singers, comics and movie directors. 

The immigrant's children were usually not taught Yiddish.  These new citizens wanted their children to assimilate in America and leave the painful past behind, symbolized by the Yiddish language and culture.  In Europe Jews were not allowed to live amongst other peoples, they were segregated into, in Russia, the "Pale of Settlement", and, in other European countries, into their own villages or ghettoes. They could not take up just any vocation they chose - they were forbidden.  They lived within the small confines of what they were allowed and Yiddish became a part German, part Hebrew, part smidgeons of other tongues way of communicating that outsiders could not understand.  What is interesting to me is that, instead of the European alphabet, with which all the other European languages except Russian (that uses the Cyrillic alphabet) are written, the Yiddish used the  Hebrew alphabet.  The reason is that Jewish males studied the holy books - the Torah and the Talmud - they did not receive a secular education.  These books were in Hebrew and the men learned Hebrew.  They also SPOKE Yiddish and when Jews began to write down the Yiddish language - they used the alphabet they had learned from childhood - Hebrew.  Women were not educated, so in order for them to read and understand, they needed their spoken language (Jewish women generally did not learn the Hebrew language) written down for them.  The men knew Hebrew and that is the alphabet they used to write down the actual Yiddish words.  Yiddish, therefore, reads from right to left and is written in Hebrew, but the words are not Hebrew.  Fascinating, as Spock would say - it is indeed, fascinating. 

I should have taken linguistics in college, along with archeology and history.  I love all three subjects - how language evolves is especially (what's another word for fascinating??   Quick check with the online thesaurus)intriguing. 

Part of my interest in Jewish history is because of my neighbors when I was a child in upstate New York.  Our street was 100% Gentile (although I, at 5 years of age, knew nothing about different kinds of people - people were people) until I was about 5 years old.  Then, in the space of a year, three Jewish families moved in - two directly across the street, and one next door.

There were the Schwartz, the Berstein and the Lieberman families (names changed).  The Schwartzes stayed to themselves and I never got to know the children there, although their father had a small snow plow and he would plow everyone's street after it snowed in the winter.  We sure appreciated that!!  The Bersteins had a daughter, Mara, that I played with who was maybe 2 years younger than I, and next door were 2 girls - one my age and one older.  They were Miriam and Rebecca.  From the beginning there was friction between us.  They were from the city and I was absolutely a country tomboy, climbing trees, getting dirty, etc.  Miriam and Rebecca rarely came outside to play.  They had their own color coordinated room with twin beds and they each had their own cobalt blue bottle of "Evening in Paris" on their individual bureaus.  Each bureau had it's own mirror and on top was a tray holding their comb and brush sets, carefully placed along with the perfume.  They had Barbie dolls and they had a piano and took piano lessons.  From that time on I wanted a piano and piano lessons, which my parents eventually got for me.  I hated Barbie dolls and I hated baby dolls even more.  I couldn't think of anything more boring and I was always full of energy.  If I went over there to play, it invariably ended with their grandmother calling me "meshuggenah" and me going home in shame.  Their grandmother was a very small, skinny, almost shrivelled woman with stockings that invariably sagged terribly.  She wore baggy housedresses and sensible black old lady's shoes.  She was always cooking and her husband, much quieter, often was sitting and reading a Yiddish newspaper, which looked unbelievably foreign to me. 

Oh how I wish I could talk to them now, those two.  I never found out if either of them were Holocaust survivors - I don't remember seeing a tattoo on the grandmother's arm (and she wore short sleeves), but I could just have forgotten, it was so long ago.  They lived in their own apartment on the other side of town, but each day they came and spent the entire day with their daughter, Lily.  It seemed to me when I was there that the grandparents did the cleaning and cooking.  Lily was so quiet and reclusive - I never remember her speaking very much.  The two girls, Miriam and Rebecca, were - to me - pushy, bossy, nasty and condescending.  After a year or so, I didn't go over there anymore.  One time Rebecca pulled me aside and told me in a theatrical whisper that I should never mention the name, "Jesus Christ" in that house.  I never had mentioned it - my family were not religious Catholics and I could not figure out what was up with these people - they were so strange. 

Of course, hindsight is 20-20.  They were living in the shadow of the Holocaust - at that time a mere 20 years in the past.  Jews were still not allowed to join certain country clubs or live in certain areas in the South.  They made fun of me mercilessly and Miriam regularly threatened to beat me up, but I know now a lot more than I knew then.  Miriam had a kidney disease that made her swell up.  I was not allowed to go in the upstairs bathroom in their house because there was some contraption in there that she had to use.  She was whiny and ornery and very spoiled - and very unhappy.  Many days from my back yard I could hear a scream fest going on next door with Miriam screaming and others screaming back - it would go on for hours and I would hear the rise and fall of angry, frustrated and high pitched voices.  I also heard the word, "oy" a lot - a GREAT Yiddish word that I use to this day - so many Yiddish words are just so apropos for some situations.  After a year or two it was as if we had never known each other.  Actually, they used to give me a ride to my elementary school every morning, since my parents worked.  In third grade I began attending the local Catholic school and that was the last of the Lieberman family in my life.  Since they rarely came outside, we almost never saw them at all.  One thing I can thank them for is my love of figs.  Every morning they would pass out figs to both Miriam, Rebecca and myself - I loved them and still do.  It was not always bad times in their house for me.  It just usually always ended that way because I was too "crazy" for them.  They got a huge Hungarian Vischla dog - why they chose that breed I'll never know.  They kept it on a 10 foot leash at all times and it used to bark and bark and bark and run around like crazy - I think it did go crazy from being confined as it was.  It was not a friendly dog and I'd try to play with it and it would begin to run around in excitement, it's large size knocking things over.  That's when the grandmother would kick me out while yelling, "meshuggenah" at me.  One time the dog ran right through the sliding glass back doors (not while I was there, thank God) - he had bandages on for a while and was a bit more subdued after that.  Poor thing - both my parents and I felt so sorry for that dog who was unloved and lived on a 10 foot chain forever.  Morris, the father, would once in a while take the dog out in the big field behind our house and the dog would run in large circles at what seemed like 160 miles per hour for a long time, just getting out all his energy. 

Morris was nice to me, gentle and soft spoken.  He was an accountant and the only one who worked in the family, which at that time was quite normal. 

Mara's grandmother, across the street, also spent days at her daughter's house.  She cooked all the time and was much nicer than the Lieberman grandmother.  She made gefilte fish, which I loved, and yummy chopped liver.  There was always something ethnic and delicious there to eat.  She looked entirely different from Miriam and Rebecca's grandmother.  She was round and short and her legs from the ankle up were the same thickness.  Later, her ankles swelled quite a bit and would bulge over the edges of her shoes, making those tight old lady shoes look very uncomfortable. 

One year when I was in 4th grade, there was a fire at the Lieberman house that started in the kitchen.  They all moved into the grandparent's apartment for the time it took to renovate the house.  It was late fall and when Hanukah came, they placed a Menorah in the window and lit the proper candles each night.  It looked so ghostly in the blackened picture window of the house.  I remember how it gave me the creeps to see the house empty and injured.  Once I visited Miriam and Rebecca at their grandmother's apartment.  It was comfortable and cozy and I do remember old photographs of ancestors in big, embellished frames on the walls there. 

I wish I could go back in time and be kinder and more understanding of these women - all of them, but especially the grandmothers and grandfathers.  I wish I could have learned their histories.  Even without the Holocaust, life was very dangerous in Europe for Jews, so no doubt they had stories to tell.  I was far too young to be able to do any of these things.  I didn't find out about the Holocaust until I was about 12 years old and my parents were watching "World At War".  There were the live scenes from the liberation of the concentration camps, bulldozers pushing stick thin, bald bodies;  arms, legs, staring eyes, heads in mountainous piles, rolling over and over, the parts sticking up at crazy angles.  I was absolutely stunned, frightened and shocked.  I remember asking my parents about what we were watching and they explained a bit, but no one could ever explain how this could happen in a supposedly civilized world, committed by a very civilized country.   I knew from that point on that the world in which I lived was not what I had grown up to believe and I've never been the same.  I have no illusions about human beings and what they are capable of. 


cand051997 said...

Nice job of changing the names and then you go to the real names at the end. . . .Investigative reporter you are not - your sources would have never kept their anonymity and probably would have had their own reality show.. . .Nice story though. . . .I remember them the same way. . . . .

Susan Humeston said...

Look at it now. I was in the middle of changing it and I had a computer problem for about 10 minutes so I couldn't finish it. It should be good now. By the way - the book was fabulous.