Nokh Gerekhtigkayt, Nokh Gerekhtigkayt, Zolstu Zikh Yogn” (Yehoash’s version of Deuteronomy 16:20)

In one of the few uninspired stories in my grandfather’s The Wise Men of Chelm, a delegation goes out from the town in search of justice. Following the expansion of business and trade in the town, there had been a radical separation between rich and poor. The rich have everything, the poor nothing, and there is no Justice in Chelm. So they go looking for it out in the world.

I called the story uninspired, mostly because it’s predictable and, in the Yiddish version, goes on way too long. Fortunately, every new telling gives a chance to tweak it a little. Here’s the short and sweet version: The Chelmites encounter swindlers who sell them a barrel of rotten fish, telling them not to open it until they get back home, because Justice is hard to come by, and easily lost. They get home, open it, and understand. The Justice of the World stinks, and they are on their own.

This morning I wake in an America where justice stinks. According the famous quote by New York State chief judge Sol Wachtler, a prosecutor can, if he wants to, get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. OK. We Jews can accept the idea that a ham sandwich might not be altogether an innocent thing. Nevertheless, the killer of an unarmed boy they don’t indict, if that killer carries a badge. Here’s The Nation on the subject.

In a different one of my grandfather’s books, Robert’s Adventures, near the end of the book, there is a strike at a textile factory in Ashashok, Pennsylvania. To cope with the strike, the sheriff has deputized a group of street thugs. Their young lackeys are planted in a crowd and throw rocks during a demonstration, to give the hastily uniformed ‘deputies’ a pretext to fire on the crowd. The strikers set up aid stations. These are tents with heat, food and medics for the workers who have been evicted from factory housing. The ‘deputies’ shut them down, by court order. Later, they threaten Robert, because his uncle has been taking scrip (union-issued tickets) and letting people use it to buy food in his shop.

In short, the law is whatever the law wants, guided by what secures or threatens the powers that be. Impunity and intimidation are built into the model. Violent riots play into the hands of those who favor such impunity. So much so that, when it serves their ends, the law eggs the angry mob on. This gives them the pretext to further militarize the police.

Apparently, in 1938 my Zeidy thought that this basic information should be part of a young person’s world view. The law is not the same thing as justice. We have nowhere else to go to look for it. We have to make it where we are.

Illustration by Lillian Fischel. From The Wise Men of Chelm, by Solomon Simon.

Illustration by Lillian Fischel. From The Wise Men of Chelm, by Solomon Simon.

Where We Belong, Where We Will Go, and How Fast?

I have tried to communicate the excitement of our reading groups. Every Tuesday after language class a group of us has been reading Di Heldn fun Chelm (The Wise Men of Chelm) and every Wednesday we’ve been reading from the weekly Torah portion in Yehoash’s Yiddish translation. This week we read about how the leading citizen of Chelm prepared a wedding feast for his only son. In the Torah, the twins Esau and Jakov battled it out in Rivka’s womb. Later, Esau sold his birthright as a first born son to Yakov for some lentil soup. We range from four or five readers to (more often lately) a dozen, each of us sounding out and translating a sentence or two at a time. Each group lasts only an hour, but it’s a great experience.

A couple of us had an interesting exchange with H on Tuesday, on our way out at the end of our Chelm reading group. She apologized for slowing us down. We immediately and vehemently thanked her for being an indispensable part of our group. She seemed surprised. I was surprised that she was surprised.

But I shouldn’t have been. This question of whether we ‘truly’ belong afflicts everyone. For myself, even as I learn a little faster than most of my fellow students (because I am putting in four times as much time), I realize again and again how over my head I am, how little time I have, and how much there is to do.

Since I’ve been translating one of my grandfather’s books, our teacher, D, wanted me to apply for a Yiddish Book Center translation fellowship this fall, and she offered to write me a letter of recommendation. The deadline was last week. In the end, I skipped it. The list of past recipients make it clear those who have received such fellowships are already fluent in the Yiddish language (in fact, that’s a prerequisite), and have PhDs in Jewish Studies, Literature, or Creative Writing and/or have already published books. Which in turn raises the question of who I think I am, and what I think I’m likely to accomplish.

In the meantime, as soon as several of my fellow students subscribed to my blog, I abruptly stopped writing. It’s not that I have run out of things to write about. In the last week or two, many topics have presented themselves, from small (the ‘urging particle’ akorsht, אקארשט; or the idiomatic expression, vi komt di katz ibern vasser?), to medium (the enigmatic figure of Isaac, and corresponding awesomeness of Rivka; or else the nuances of the various Yiddish words for people, nation, and folk), to large (what authenticity meant in I. L. Peretz’s time and what it means now; or how our ideas about grief affect how we come the study of Yiddish). At every level I wish I could know more, or present it better.

So that’s where I’ve been. Lots of ideas, but held back by the nagging feeling that I’m late to the party, and over my head. Or conversely, when the mood swings the other way, that I’m taking this all too seriously.

Here’s an example of feeling over my head. E came in to class Tuesday eager to show-and-tell her copy of Dover’s famous (infamous?) “Say it in Yiddish” guidebook. It is famous because of an essay by Michael Chabon, which appeared first in 1997 in a journal called Civilization, then in Harper’s Magazine. Originally titling his essay Guidebook to a Land of Ghosts, Chabon made fun of the phrases chosen and cited the nonexistence of a country, present or past, where the bankers, dentists, train conductors and hairstylists all speak Yiddish. In particular, he pointed to the phrase “Can I go by boat/ferry to _____” and said “Wither could I sail on that boat/ferry, in the solicitous company of Uriel and Beatrice Weinreich, and from what shore?”

Chabon’s encounter with this guidebook, his lament for a country that he says never really existed, a modern Yiddishland, was the spark that led to his writing his novel The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. But his musings also provoked a sharp critical response, from Hassidm, who do live their daily lives in Yiddish, and from some academic Yiddishists, who felt that Chabon had taken the publication of this guidebook out of context of what Jewish life was in the 1950s. I was unaware of any of this. [This fascinating essay by Janet Hadda, reprinted in Mendele, helped bring me up to speed.] Two weeks ago an article about the guidebook, Chabon’s essay, and the reaction to it, by Layzer Burko, appeared in Yiddish in the Forverts. Still a frightfully slow reader, I am now working my way through that article, in addition to my other reading.

All this makes me feel like I’m playing catch-up.

It also gives me great empathy for H. The fact is, in addition to her just being her, I value her reading with us.  I do so not despite, but because it’s harder for her. Of course in any group some will go a little faster and some a little slower. Kh has taken other classes, and has friends to practice speaking to in Yiddish. I had my German background. A, though he never read it, heard and spoke Yiddish a lot as a child and young man. T has her Hebrew. And so on.

Of course you want to include the person who is a little slower or has to hear something twice to get it. At any given moment, another of us might want to slow down, or need the repetition, too. She also provides me with someone to explain whatever I learned in the last week. There’s no better way to consolidate what you just learned than to explain it. And, when I get around to learning more conversational, as opposed to written, Yiddish, somebody out there is going to have to be very patient with me. Because the phrase book approach to speaking doesn’t get you very far. Finally, the fact that H sticks with it, and with us, even when it’s hard for her, is a tremendous validation that what we’re doing is important. Likewise, my classmates who are in their eighties and up came out on Tuesday in Rochester’s 18º weather in equal numbers as the younger half of the class.

Not everyone values what we do so highly. Last year, the JCC wanted more space on the bookshelves in the “Yiddish Cultural Center” (the room we meet in), and gave us a short time to get rid of about 1/5 of the books in the Yiddish library. A group of us worked to make sure that most or all the books we got rid of were duplicates (not easy to do fast in a sprawling, inadequately organized library). But at the same time, I reassured my friends, who were even more appalled than I was at this mistaken priority, that the contents of all these books had already been saved, and digitized at the Yiddish Book Center. “What we need,” I said at the time, “is readers.”

Based on this news item this process of shrinking local public collections of Yiddish books is widespread. Wherever it is happening, there seems to be agreement that unread books have no claim to real estate. Only readers can reverse the trend. Fair enough. From the point of view of us talmidim, there could be no more important work than inviting and creating such readers. But D’s classes are not aggressively promoted, and resources not devoted. At times, the JCC just seems like an athletic club with a star of David slapped on the outside, that would gladly sell out our cultural heritage for a bowl of red lentil soup.

Now the administration is at it again, insisting on leaving the door to the Yiddish Center unlocked, so that anyone who wants to can use it as a meeting space whenever they want**. This occasioned a new round of fretting among my fellow students. If thieves know our books have no resale value, they’ll be safe. But do they? Certainly opening the room will make it harder for our teacher, who won’t be able to leave most of her teaching materials in the room between classes. So our group is marginalized at the outskirts of our already marginal-enough group. Nu? What’s new?

And meanwhile, at the same time that the world is ending (as it always seems to be), we finally have our readers. Whether five people on a given day, or a dozen, we have people to read Yiddish with together. We have our library online. They could take the books, the room, all of it, I said to D, and we will still have that. We could, if we needed to, go anywhere. And this was her answer to the question in Chabon’s essay, about where someone could possibly go with his Say it in Yiddish guidebook. “It’s already taken us to Chelm, and to the Torah. Who knows where it will take us next?”

** [note, added after the fact. I’m unclear whether the administration was misunderstood, or were prevailed upon to change their minds. The room is kept so that it can be easily used by other groups, but is still locked. As usual, the world did not end. Yet.]

Say It

Armistice Day

Letter from my grandmother to her sweetheart in the army, sent the day after Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918.
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Nov. 12, 1918

My dear Shleima,

Yesterday was a great day. Never yet was our house filled with so much joy and enthusiasm. Papa almost went back to childhood, with a “red white and blue” ribbon on his hat he was marching through the streets on an automobile truck (of course he was not the only one) waving a flag and cheering. Then he bought brandy and wine, called together every body, even strangers and we all…well I’ll tell and we got drunk. Now dear must I tell you how I missed you ? Liebman made a toast, Shlypsin sang ”shu, shu chapzunim?” Katz drank wine and Rosie set on the couch. My face was full of smiles and mirth, any time of the day I could not have felt any anger to anybody then, I did not believe then that there is such a word as hate in existence. And if you were only here I would have loved you five times as much. Don’t be angry dear and say that my love is so small that it could be increased five times. It isn’t this. Only I could not explain it. If you were here then you would understand.. I was very much down hearted with the size of your letter, and only when reading of your promise to write a big one tomorrow I became more cheerful. So now I am waiting impatiently for tomorrow.

With love


Thanks to Miriam Forman for finding this letter.

Loosely Bound

A packed Torah portion this week—The Malachim visit Abraham and promise Sarah will bear him a son. Abraham negotiates with God. Sodom and Gemorrah are destroyed. Lot’s daughters are offered up to placate the mob, and later have sex with their father. Isaac is born. Abraham is commanded to bind Isaac for sacrifice. If they had only spread the dramatic stories out a little more, they could have livened up six portions during the dry part of the year.

It’s week four of twelve weeks reading Bereshit (Genesis) in Yiddish. I again find that after our reading group, I end up thinking more about the Torah content than about the Yiddish language. When you do religious stuff with a group of Jewish people, you inevitably end up thinking about the Jewish religion. Being a Jewish atheist, it turns out, cuts both ways.

How is that? The Christians I know who are atheists do not call themselves Christians, nor do mainstream Christian churches think of them as such. But the Jewish atheists I know almost all still consider ourselves to be Jews. Judaism is not just a religion, but is also a nationality, and a cultural identification, and for some people, an ethnicity. And the religion embraces this multiplicity. You can become part of the community by birth, or by choice. If you’re born of Jews, you are a Jew. If you believe, and want to become a Jew, you can, but there are no belief tests, and there is no codified creed that everyone is supposed to endorse.

When our group reads together, there is a range of familiarity, and interest in, the Torah, and a also range of beliefs and levels of religious observance. Some read the word יהוה as ‘hashem’. Since ‘Adonai’ is not the pronunciation of God’s name, יהוה, but just means ‘Lord’, this means they aren’t just avoiding saying the name of God, but won’t even say the word ‘god’. This carries over from Hebrew to Yiddish. But they have no such compunction in English.

Religion is not intended to be rational or consistent. I would go farther and say that it cannot be rational or consistent. It is a system for appealing to the emotions, and to our yearning for meaning beyond what we can rationally understand. It is precisely about (as the Taoists put it) the Name that cannot be named.

So my avidity in pointing out logical inconsistencies is not always appreciated. The cry over Sodom and Gemorrah has reached the Lord, who says, “We better go down and check that out, and see if it’s all as bad as the cry would have it.” What’s the mechanism of that? (I ask). How does the cry reach up? Does God really have to come down (so now he’s located in space…) and see for himself?”

“The stories are to benefit us,” says T. “If they wrote it from God’s point of view we would not be able to understand.” I agree with her that it does benefit me. Because I like to be skeptical and cynical, these inconsistencies in the text make me happy. She rolls her eyes.

Then we come to Abraham bargaining with God to save the cities. Abraham asks whether, if there are fifty innocent people in Sodom and Gemorrah, God would really destroy the innocent along with the guilty. Halayleh dir tzu tun aza zakh. Strange of him to say, “God forbid” that you do such a thing, to God. But that’s the whole point. The argument Abraham is making is that there should be moral consistency. Zol der rikhter fun der gantzer erd nit ton gerekhtikayt? [Shouldn’t the judge of all the earth do justly?]

“We are meant to question God,” says T. And then she turns to me she says, “And that’s why you are welcome.” She is pleased with the story and with herself.

And rightly so. She is a great resource to the group because she knows her Torah and because she has complete command of the Hebrew. When we’re not sure why something in the Yiddish is worded the way it is (bay Sarahn hot oyfgehert tzu zayn der shteyger vi bay veyber, “For Sarah was no longer in the manner of women”) we can ask T what the Hebrew original does. But she has also has just demonstrated the two features of a healthy (as opposed to fundamentalist) person of faith. First, with the bit about God coming down to check, she asserted the obvious – that the stories are not meant to be taken literally. Second, she is relaxed with unbelievers and with challenge because her belief does not require that other people think the same way she does.

These widely-held attitudes among Jewish believers are a big reason why Jewish atheists stay Jewish. The Torah needs interpreting, which means that it can change and improve as human understanding changes and improves. Argument is not merely tolerated, but welcomed.

When I started by saying that being a Jewish atheist cuts both ways, this is what I trying to get at. Recently I quoted Kaplan’s definition of Judaism as the religious civilization of the Jewish people. I said then that this means the stories belong to us (secular Jews) too. But it would also be accurate to say, “we (secular Jews) belong to the stories, too.” The community will engage flexibly and will welcome the skeptic. Their openness to contradiction, the toleration and even celebration of dissent and argument, exerts a pull. The stories themselves are terse, open-ended and dramatic, and can be looked at from many different points of view, including the idea that there has to be some moral consistency and the idea that we shouldn’t expect literal or logical consistency.

Even so, the stories of Lot’s daughters and of the binding of Isaac probably strain modern morality and rational argument past the snapping point. I will just say something brief about the binding of Isaac here. The other is a much deeper problem and will have to wait for now.

No God worth worshipping would command his prophet to sacrifice his son. Yes, in the Torah, Abraham’s hand is stopped. But no entity that could be described as ‘good’ would suggest such an act, even as an object lesson or a test of obedience.

But here’s where the open-ended nature of the stories, the encouragement of retelling them in a living tradition, and the tolerance of skepticism make our heritage such a treasure. In the 1980s, I twice had the privilege of hearing the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai read his poetry. At the second reading, I remember he talked about the binding of Isaac as an elaborate piece of theater, where Abraham was in the know the whole time. With a wink at Isaac, he brought him to the mountain for this rite of passage. See how Amichai’s poem turns the narrative on his head, and see how one cruel story can give birth to a new story, whose retelling becomes a new lesson about compassion:

The real hero of the Isaac story was the ram,
who didn’t know about the conspiracy between the others.
As if he had volunteered to die instead of Isaac.
I want to sing a song in his memory—
about his curly wool and his human eyes,
about the horns that were silent on his living head,
and how they made those horns into shofars when he was slaughtered
to sound their battle cries
or to blare out their obscene joy.

I want to remember the last frame
like a photo in an elegant fashion magazine:
the young man tanned and manicured in his jazzy suit
and beside him the angel, dressed for a party
in a long silk gown,
both of them empty-eyed, looking
at two empty places,

and behind them, like a colored backdrop, the ram,
caught in the thicket before the slaughter.
The thicket was his last friend.

The angel went home.
Isaac went home.
Abraham and God had gone long before.

But the real hero of the Isaac story
was the ram.

–Yehuda Amichai. Translated from the Hebrew by Chana Bloch

Yehuda Amichai

Yehuda Amichai