The Wandering Beggar Returns

A Favorite

Early on in this process I reconciled myself to the fact that the best of my grandfather’s works were probably the ones that were already translated into English in his lifetime. In particular, I love The Wise Men of Helm, The Wandering Beggar, and the first volume of his autobiography, My Jewish Roots. Of course a really good writer never leaves you empty. There have been more than enough delightful passages and insights into his world view in each Yiddish book I have worked on. What I’m hoping for, once I’ve finished translating all of the children’s titles, is to select some of the finer excerpts and compile them into a Solomon Simon reader.

Of the two children’s books I mentioned, The Wise Men of Helm has had its full share of acclaim. In fact, the English translation is still in print over a half century after it first appeared. But The Wandering Beggar is out of print and obscure. Which is a great pity. It is, in some ways, my favorite thing he wrote.

“Ugly and stupid” from early childhood, Simple Shmerl (or, in the Yiddish, Shmerl the Fool) would in these more enlightened times be described very differently. Then, he was simply called a simpleton. In that era, it was straightforwardly better to be ‘smart’ than to be ‘stupid’, and that was that. His “cognitive disability” is not only unspecified, it is denigrated by the other characters. Tormented by other children, Shmerl leaves his home to seek his fortune in the wide world, and becomes a beggar.

Out in the wider world, he comes to embody the folklore character of the Holy Fool. He is put in situations where his lack of understanding again and again turns out to be just the thing that is needed. He encounters thieves, a greedy miser, the old-world version of an “identity thief”, and others. Each time, he solves a seemingly intractable problem without the slightest clue of what he is doing.

As the book goes on, Shmerl increases somewhat in insight and definitely in dignity, while retaining his essential character. The challenges he faces become less individual and more collective, as Jewish communities need the person they believe to be a “holy man” and “miracle worker”, to contend with classic anti-Semitic folklore nemeses: an evil prime minister, a blood libel, a pogrom.

Shmerl’s blankness is a perfect screen on which to project the folly of those who should know better, the randomness of fate, and the nature of moral courage. The author never mistreats or disrespects his character. On the contrary. Shmerl’s good heart leads the reader to identify with him throughout. I think the book still holds up, and wish more people could read it, somehow.


The Clever Little Tailor

Dos Kluge Shnayderl or the Clever Little Tailor, the titular hero of another one of my grandfather’s books, is as smart as Shmerl isn’t. My grandfather was obsessed with intelligence. Sages and/or idiots richly populate his entire body of work. Of course, even then a person was not one or the other. In Kluge Hent, a character was gifted in being able to make anything with his hands, even though he was unable to read. It seems uniquely fitting to me that Solomon Simon’s daughter (my aunt) Judith Simon Bloch devoted her career to working with children with developmental disabilities, and made major intellectual and pragmatic advances in that area of educational work.

The Kluge Shnayderl book is a string of set pieces, in which a poor Jewish tailor outsmarts one opponent after another. He is a trickster and even, when necessary, a thief (but never for real), who lives by his wits. As with the Chelm stories and The Wandering Beggar, many of these stories are straight out of the established folk tradition. One of them, for example, reads almost exactly like the story Jack the Giant Killer, the goyishe version of which I heard as a child.

This book is a little patchy. Some of the stories are, in fact, clever and amusing. Some, however are not. A peculiarity of my learn-by-translating curriculum is that I have not generally read ahead. The motivation to find out what happens keeps me going. I have learned to have faith in my grandfather. In both Amolike Yidn and Roberts Ventures there were individual early chapters that frankly were just not good— enough so as to keep even my mother from reading further at first. But in both cases, there were rich rewards for plowing on.

An Old Companion

Here I will admit to having taken a sneak peek ahead, though I have kept myself from reading. So I did know that something better was waiting for me on the other end, even as I just trudged my way through a somewhat dreary episode in which the Clever Tailor outwits an evil Priest, a chapter that somehow manages to combine tedium and sadism. And now, a little over three quarters of the way through the book, my patience has been rewarded. My childhood companion Shmerl wandered into the book.

Authors frequently revisit beloved characters. Sometimes, it’s wonderful, and sometimes it’s a mistake. Usually fans are eager for more, no matter what. Series have become the norm rather than the exception in children’s literature. I myself am not at all unhappy that another Harry Potter movie is coming out this year. Of course, there’s always a question whether lightning can strike twice, or whether an author can even successfully reenter her/his own world of imagination at all. But in this case, the books Shmerl Nar and Dos Kluge Shnayderl were originally published only two years apart, in 1931 and 1933. I am the only one to have experienced so many decades between them.

Shmerl arrives fresh from the events of the second-to-last chapter of his own book. He has witnessed a pogrom provoked by the Cossack Gonta [an actual historical villain, who apparently grew even larger in Jewish folklore than in real life]. He has lost his nerve and his verve. He is weary and traumatized by the violence he has witnessed. Hungry and with nowhere to go, he tags along with Shnayderl, after the two of them meet by chance in the woods. Who knows what these two heros will not be able to accomplish as they join forces and hit the road together?

Shnayderl Cover.jpg

“The Jews” of America

When I was a young college student, I was not just ‘tolerant’, or even an ‘ally’, but I was avidly pro gay. This was a time when, if not rare, such a stance was unusual among straight people, at least outside of the world of design or of theater. Not only wasn’t I homophobic, but I was homo-philic. I went out of my way to keep company with gay people, especially with lesbians, who were less likely to mistake my motivation.

One of the reasons I gave for my attitude was that I felt that gays and lesbians were “The Jews” of America. I had experienced very little anti-Semitism in my life to that point. And, at the end of the seventies and the start of the eighties it seemed to poor naïve suburban-raised me, that racism was waning. Certainly much progress on civil rights had been made. But it was still American as apple pie to hate gay people. Analogously to Jews, they had also developed a culture that was based on mutual support in the face of oppression, and that seemed to me creative and steeped in humor in ways that resonated with Jewish culture. My support was visceral. Emotionally, I could not understand why equality even had to be fought for, but was not simply understood. The cause was a self-evidently just as the emancipation of the Jews in Europe.

“The Jews” of America. John Lennon wrote a song called Woman is the N-word of the World, whose title is viewed by some young people on its face as both a sexist and a racist sentiment. In the current highly sensitized cultural mood, no one is going to cue it up and listen to a white man sing the n-word, or a former spouse abuser trying to say something supportive about women’s rights. So be it. Lennon was trying to illuminate both maltreatment and the potential for resistance. And it was in that sense that I made the analogy as well. If people who have been targets of intolerance stuck together, there would be no majority. That was also the point that Jessie Jackson made in 1988 in his “Patchwork Quilt Speech”. He was trying to redeem himself from the anti-semitism that had prevented him from being the Bernie Sanders of that particular election cycle. And he also spoke the words Gay and Lesbian out loud and supportively at a national political convention for the first time.

This morning I woke to news of a horrific domestic terrorist attack. I don’t have the details yet, but according to the headline, twenty people were killed in Orlando, in a shooting at a gay club. If so, it would be the worst anti-Gay violence in America since the UpStairs Lounge night club fire, an arson attack that killed thirty two people on gay pride weekend in 1973, and which people barely know and talk about.

Even in an era when public anti-Semitism is making a comeback, we are safe here in the US. By historical standards, safer than Jews have been anywhere, ever. But we will not be for long unless as Jews, we speak out about other people who are on the receiving end of bigotry and hatred. I mourn today with every gay and lesbian and bisexual and queer and transgender American, every member of a sexual minority not adequately acknowledged or understood, let alone accepted. Your sorrow is mine. Your hope for a better world, may it come swiftly, and in our day, is my hope too.

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The Archive of YIVO

Oct. 23, 1969
David, my youngest grandson—

Thank you for your beautiful letter. But you are smart, Doodle, very clever. I think when you grow up you will be more clever than Zeide Simon and a better writer. I treasure your letter it will go, as the letters of very important people, to the archive of YIVO*.

Zeide Simon
PS. I wait impatiently to see my three grandsons. Bubby sends her regards.
[*note: YIVO, or the Yidisher visnshaftlekher institute, was founded in Vilna in the 1920s and moved to New York City during WWII. Its library and archive form a record and repository of Eastern European Jewish culture and history.]

Last month I had a chance to talk to my friends in Rochester and to a large audience that had come out for an afternoon of Yiddish music, poetry, and song. I was to talk about my grandfather, about his work, and about my coming to learn Yiddish and to begin translating his books. Too much material for the brief time I had. So, I glossed quickly over his biography and the bibliography of his work, and tried to focus on my relationship to him.

It is that personal relationship which brought me to Yiddish, and which still organizes my learning goals. I received the letter quoted above at age nine, a year before Solomon Simon died. I was left with my memories of him, memories rank with the smell of cigar smoke and as bright and full of laughter as his eyes. Left, too, with his books that were available in English, and with his untranslated ones as a distant aspiration.

I have already told the story of walking into the Rochester JCC more than forty years later and seeing one of those books on a shelf of the wonderful Yiddish library there. In fact, it’s there I found the last of his twenty full-length Yiddish books that I didn’t already own. I have talked about my inspiring teacher Deborah, the reading circle her students formed, and in general what a great learning environment it is at the JCC. No surprise, then, that my coming there to remember him, share pictures of him and of his books, read a snip of one of them in Yiddish and English, and talk about how he has inspired me, was all very warmly received.

Absent that community since I moved last summer, I’ve worked at first on my own, plugging away at my translating (I’m currently working on another children’s book, “The Clever Little Tailor”). When that was not enough, I turned to online classes. Even when I don’t have anything tangible to report here, the progress continues. As I mentioned, my learning goals are organized and motivated by my ongoing relationship with my grandfather. I continue to be surprised and delighted at how meaningful it is, getting to know him better so long after he physically passed out of my life. And that includes getting to know his limitations as well as his wisdom and his humor.

But my grandfather has also been an in into a whole civilization. To become a reader of his Yiddish, I become a reader of Yiddish in general. To understand him, I have to understand something about his times, his place, his models and his peers. So, in my talk, I listed the names of all the other writers that I have already been introduced to as a Yiddish learner, even in my first couple of years.

By analogy, my brilliant and broadly curious sweetheart studies fungi. She thinks like a naturalist, not like a reductionist (someone who might spend a career studying one molecular process in one type of cell in one class of living things). In order to really understand an organism, one has to know about its life cycle and its ecosystem. How does the insect host or the plant host (on which the fungus depends) live? How is it being affected by human intrusion into its habitat, or by climate change? I think a passionate interest in any randomly chosen living thing, along with a broad and penetrating curiosity, will give someone a way to approach understanding our whole beautiful interconnected planet.

So it is with me when in order to get the most out of Di Heldn fun Khelm (The Wise Men of Helm), I am drawn into other tellings of those same stories, not only in Jewish folklore, but in the folk stories of other cultures, too. This week for my online class I have been reading Y. Y. Trunk’s Khelemer Khakhomim, and comparing the similarities and differences with my Zeidy’s versions. And I can’t wait for this fall when Ruth von Bernuth (University of North Carolina) publishes her book-length treatment of Chelm stories. Stay tuned here.

All this gives me an idea. For anyone who wants to go deeper into Yiddish learning but is not lucky enough to have the specific kind of Yiddish yerushe (family heritage) that I was given, I have a suggestion. Adopt a Yiddish writer. Pretend she or he is your grandfather or grandmother. You weren’t given a half shelf full of untranslated books to motivate you? So, pick one! Once you do, if you think of the writer as your grandmother or grandfather, you will keep reading even when the work is a little patchy or dull, or when you disagree with it, or when the vocabulary is too hard. You will want to know where they came from, and that will bring you to learn about a specific part of the Old Country. You will want to know who they hung out with, and that will bring you to one set of writers, and to know who their role models were, and that will bring you to a different set. Or, maybe not. Maybe you don’t have time for all that but could still use this idea to push yourself to finish one whole book. I know someone who has carried his uncle’s book around for decades, hoping to find someone to read it with him. Be that someone.

Beginning by reading and translating the children’s books of one author has been an entree, and also a limitation. The dynamic of my relationship to my grandfather brings me to broader interests and back again. When you learn out of the dictionary, of course you don’t get the same tam (the same feel or taste) as with spoken language. Many nuances of tone, of word choice, and of idiom are missed. And so I decided that to move forward, I needed to take an intensive in-person Yiddish course this summer. Of these, by far the best regarded, the most extensive and intensive, is the Uriel Weinreich Yiddish Summer Program, which is hosted by YIVO in New York.

While I’m there, I’m hoping to get at the archive, where my grandfather’s papers are housed. Here’s a screen shot of their description of their holdings:

YIVO Simon Archive

His catalogue lists manuscripts and autobiographical materials. I’m very curious to know whether he ever made notes for a third volume of his autobiography, which would include more about his life after he came to America. There is also a list of prominent Yiddish writers with whom he corresponded. I’d love to see what Shalom Asch wrote to him before and perhaps after they fell out over Asch’s Yiddish novels about the life of Jesus.

Again, this is an example of how my relationship with him defines my curriculum. Though he did have a typewriter, in order to read many or most of his letters I will have to learn to read Yiddish cursive handwriting. So, on top of the language classes I will have another challenge. I am confident my long-ago background as a calligrapher will come in handy here. On that list, there are also letters from Leibush Lehrer, Shmuel Niger, and Mani Leib in particular that I hope to be able to read.

And maybe, somewhere in one of those boxes, there will be a letter from a nine-year-old boy.