A Thought or Two About Nostalgia

When I was in Canada last week, the Globe and Mail ran an article about nostalgia and Trump [link]:

In it, Cathal Kelly says, “The current political moment might be called the new Age of Nostalgia.” One interesting observation he makes is that when asked when America used to be great, many of Trump’s followers seem to be nostalgic for Ronald Reagan, whose own campaign slogan was also “Let’s make America great again.” As an old Hollywood actor, Reagan seemed, in 1980, to embody the optimism of a previous generation. In other words, we are nostalgic for nostalgia, and the past isn’t what it used to be. As Kelly describes it, nostalgia is a longing for a past that never really existed. And the politicians who appeal to it are, “peddlers of false memories and delusory reassurance.”

The dangers of nostalgia are palpable, and yet I’ve decided to devote a fair portion of my time to learning Yiddish. What can be more nostalgic than trying to immerse yourself in a vanished civilization?

Furthermore, my grandfather, whose life and thought I’m trying to understand via his writings, was viewed by some as a ‘conservative’, even a ‘reactionary’ in the context of his radical surroundings. He believed that in forging a secular Yiddish culture, the baby had been thrown out with the bathwater. He also described his childhood in idealized terms, and once literally referred to the shtetl as “The Crown of Jewish Creation”.

I will keep reading his work. Avrom Lichtenbaum is offering an online class through the Workmen’s Circle next term about the Yiddish essay, and he will be including at least one essay of my grandfather’s in the syllabus. I am gratified that my personal quest seems to be generating some small ripple effects. And I am still eager to know what Solomon Simon valued and why. But as I do so, I will maintain a critical, even skeptical, stance regarding exactly where bathwater leaves off and baby begins.

This term, again via the Workmen’s Circle, I’ve been reading Sholem Aleichem and Mendele Mocher-Sforim. Sholem Aleichem’s description of Jewish life, though often charming, was far sharper in the original than the filtered version that was received in the English-speaking world. But Mendele is positively the antidote to nostalgia. He paints the shtetlekh as being fully as corrupt as they were superstitious, not to mention ignorant of the wider world. In one story, Di Entdekung fun Volin (The Discovery of Vohlin), he describes a shtetl that suffered from fire, then from famine. When a deadly epidemic followed, it was time to act. The town leadership raised everyone’s taxes, and appointed a commission to go around inspecting everyones mezuzes, to make sure the scrolls were kosher and intact. The rabbi ordered a community-wide fast (during a famine!). Emissaries were sent to the south to beg from other Jewish communities, but devastation by fire is apparently “not valuable merchandise” to use for appeals, as there were fires all over the region with depressing regularity. And so on…

In other words, the more you get into details of what life was like, the more you see the many beautiful and laudible features of East European Jewish communal life as being in spite of, not because of, the day-to-day conditions of that world. No one should want to go back to that time or place.

If the danger of nostalgia is to use idealization of the past to avoid (rather than reflect on) the nitty-gritty details of the present, then the antidote could be more detailed reflection on the past. I would suspect, for example, that medieval re-enactors who take their hobby most seriously are the ones who are most grateful to live the bulk of their lives in the contemporary world. I’d be interested in my niece and nephew’s take on this—they participate in Society for Creative Anachronism’s role playing festivals, but spend the rest of their year working in high tech jobs.


I’ve been asked to post here the lyrics to the song Dem Milners Treren (The Miller’s Tears) here. Here they are, from a book Yidishe Folkslider, published by the Argentine Yivo in 1958. The original version, published by Mark Warshavsky in 1901, is spelled oddly and spreads over three pages, but if you need that, I can come up with it. The word nostalgia comes from the words for ‘pain’ and ‘home’. In this song, the singer sings about his home that he is being forced to leave.dem-milners-treren-1958-argentine-yivo

Note the lyric, “There were days / I’d like to remember / If I had a bit of happiness… /…
But no answer comes back.” This story is one of years of toil, and of losses, followed by forced displacement. Yes, the displacement is tragic, but it is ambiguous whether has any kind of ‘golden age’ to look back to. The implication I draw is he does not.

These ‘folksongs’ were written  by a specific person at a specific time, and a particular kind of person. An educated man, and a maskil (a freethinker, or modernizer). Mark Warshavsky was a lawyer, who wrote his songs as a hobby and performed them at parties among his educated urban set. He brought his songs to Sholem Aleichem, who loved them and made sure they got published. Thus the ‘folk’ in these folksongs, is viewed from the perspective of high culture. Warshavsky gave us the Bekher Song (bim bam ba bim bam) and Oyfn Pripitchik, among others.

It seems the idea of the Folk, of an authentic culture that predates a self-conscious culture, is often itself a construction. In a way this is comforting, at least to those of us who believe we can actively choose which parts of our identity to identify with and to nurture.

Here is the song as sung by Sidor Belarsky:


That link also includes the English translation of the lyrics. And here is the same song as sung by Theodore Bikel. This is my preferred version– being the one I grew up on. Nostalgia is not always bad:


[Finally, I can’t resist a grammatical footnote, about the ‘Dem’ in Dem Milners Treren. Possessive constructions (the tears that belong to the miller) are an exception to the normal way that articles are inflected by case. The article in the dative form attaches to the possessing person, not the object. Thus, ‘dem’, rather than ‘di’ or ‘der’, no matter what object the miller has.]


What Kind of Fool am I: Conclusion

“I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that that I was not as wise as the day I was born.” Thoreau, in Walden.

I will conclude my series on fools and foolishness, not with a bang but a whimper. After all, the subject is inexhaustible. I can make no promise that we won’t be right back at it soon. In fact, just as there is a bit of Chelmite in every one of us, I’m sure there is some narishkayt in every post I write. So, rather than any pretense at wholeness or finishing flourish, I’ll write what’s on my mind now, touching on science, politics, and literacy.

Stupid Science

I met someone who was visiting from out of town. She is at the margins of academia. Her situation is precarious and must feel more so now, after the election. She is here legally, but not a citizen, and dependent on government science funding for her research job.

That job involves entering information in a database. I will be vague so she cannot be identified. She is entering geographic coordinates of biological specimens that were gathered a long time ago. She feels the work is meaningless. First, her employer is more interested in speed than in precision. “If you have to enter the geographic center of the county, just do it,” he says. And, since her work is judged partly on how many coordinates she enters per hour, she does. Second, the people who originally gathered the samples were imprecise, used a now-antiquated system for identifying species, and often relied on local guides (with all the usual cross-linguistic and cross-cultural opportunities for misunderstanding) for location names. There is no guarantee that the species name is right and that the place is right. In short, the data are sloppy.

To my surprise, I found myself defending stupid science. OK, so, the old system having been changed, it’s possible that the species is wrong on some of these records. But it’s very unlikely the genus is wrong. Something in that category was found, somewhere around there, on a day eighty (or however many) years ago. It’s one unreliable data point. And when enough such imperfect points are put together by enough people, over enough time, patterns emerge, and inferences can be made that are much more reliable than any individual observation. That’s what science is. It is a flawed, human endeavor that, in its repetition and accumulation, approaches accuracy.

Laypeople who do not understand this, who think that science is supposed to be absolutely precise and true, can make very large mistakes. For example, any particular climate science study can be challenged. All individual observations have some degree of error in them, and some could be based on incorrect assumptions and, therefore, wrong. When a study or a method is challenged, people may say, “Aha! If this is wrong, the whole thing could be wrong.” But “the whole thing” is a pattern of results across different ways of asking the question, all leading to the same conclusion. The odds of random methodological mistakes doing that are, approximately, zero.

A Letter to my Brother

“Till now democracy worked in USA. If we begin to excuse force then there is no democracy.”

This past Thanksgiving my brother brought us a couple of old letters he’d found, written from Solomon Simon to him. One was from June of 1970, the last year of my grandfather’s life, when my brother was 13. Apparently there had been an argument at a family gathering about the shootings at Kent State.

He was an ardent patriot who, though he fled Russia to avoid forced military service in the Czar’s army, had proudly served in the US Army in World War I. At the end of his life he showed absolutely no sympathy for the civil disruptions of the late sixties. For him, the mob was not an expression of the people’s will and not a source of justice, but the opposite.

In his letter, my zeide essentially blamed the protesters for rioting. In doing so, he was expressing the view of the majority of Americans at the time. But though he defended the establishment, equating it with the majority, he also praised my brother for standing his ground in the argument: “You did very well against three antagonists. I liked it.”

Then, after making his case against revolution and for incremental change, perhaps in an effort to be conciliatory, he agreed with my brother on one point:

“A president who says he would rather go to a baseball game than to listen to protesters is a fool. Nixon is not the first stupid president. We had Coolidge, before him Harding. So what? The country survived them.” From his lips…

The First Letter of the Alphabet

Tonight my Yiddish group meets again. Yesterday, getting ready and searching for something topical, I thought of the Chanukah song I learned in my childhood, “Oh Channukah, Oh Channukah.” I suddenly understood something I’ve known/not-known for fifty years and never thought about. Children often learn songs as a string of syllables, without any idea of what they are singing. Sometimes, you can sing a song your whole life and never notice that you don’t know what it means. It was an oddly delicious feeling when the line ‘… tsin kinder, di khanike likhtelekh on,” came to me, and I realized I had never known what I was singing, but now I do. Ontsinden is a separable verb that means to kindle, or to light. “Light, children, the Channukah candles up.” Cool.

Only three or four or five people show up to our Yiddish Ithaca meetings these days. I’m told Rome wasn’t built in a day. But on the other hand I don’t want to build Rome. In fact, I just wrote a whole paragraph on Rome, tyranny, and the Jews, and then deleted it. Not building Rome.

One of those regular attendees knows a lot of Yiddish by ear, but never learned to read. I feel bad, because I am essentially leading a reading group. I do not have the chops to lead a conversation group. She announced early that she wanted to stay and listen, but was not going to learn to read. She had tried before, and failed. We worked on her, and reluctantly, she agreed to take it on, to give it one more try. Her stipulation was that she would only learn one letter of the alphabet per meeting.

And she is doing it. I admire someone who knows something will be hard and tries anyway, who knows that she will not reach her ultimate desired destination, but who takes the next step anyway. She will keep me at this even if it ends up being just us. Usually, I bring three or four things to our meetings. We typically get to two of them. Tonight, one of these will be a worksheet for the letter gimel.

Gimel is already not aleph. The quote with which I started this blogpost, “I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet,” is from Walden. It follows Thoreau’s famous ecstatic image of fishing among the stars. Up and down are one. Space and time are meaningless. The infinite can be grasped by reaching out your hand. This is a transcendent experience of being in not-knowing, of breaking through fixed forms and receiving the universe, not mediated through the symbols of mathematics or literacy, but directly. Nevertheless, what brings his vision to us is a work of literature and of craft. Consider me firmly in the pro-alphabet camp.


Still life with Walden quote. Sorry I’m without a camera these days. Still a misty-eyed view probably improves Thoreau.

What Kind of Fool am I, Part Five: Sonnet Tsu Tseyn

Last summer, I began exploring my grandfather’s archive by looking at letters. Letters make up the bulk of the material there. Shloime’s handwriting was terrible and I was brand new at reading handwritten material, but most of the letters were the ones other people had written to him, anyway. This tends to be true of estates and archives in general. Back then there were no ‘sent’ folders. It would have been a major effort to retain copies of outgoing mail.

I had very little archive time, and the letters did not promise an easy payoff – many letters were completely indecipherable to me, even the ones I could read were extremely slow going, and many of those dealt with mundane matters. But I did report with some excitement here about how, on the very first day I stumbled onto a two-page letter from the poet and dramatist H. Leyvik. The first page began, “Dear friend Dr. Sh. Simon. I’m sending you the sonnet. I think this is the poem you are missing…”


The second page had a handwritten poem: “Sonet Tsu Tseyn”, or Sonnet to Teeth. I could not find any such poem among Leyvik’s published work. It seems the great poet had personally written a bit of lighthearted verse directly to my grandfather, in honor of his dual profession, or perhaps even as payment in exchange for some dental work. It begins on a mock-serious note:

“Lend me, sadness, a little joy
I will pay you back double…”

And then I set that poem aside. It’s hard to describe, let alone explain, how masterful I can be at bits and pieces, and how much of a struggle it is to get something more substantive done.

Really, my talent is for beginnings. No surprise that one of my best finds came on my first day in the archive. But even in the summer language program itself, I began to learn to read handwriting, began to get a better grip on basic grammar, began to accept that spoken language will be crucial to my literary projects, and so, began to pay more attention to certain components of speech. And I began to find some of his writings other than his books— articles in literary journals and newspapers. This talent is one reason I love blogging and also lyric poetry, where it’s possible to do something worthwhile in a concentrated burst. Yes, I am also capable of playing the long game when I have to. I did get a PhD, and I have now translated a couple of children’s books from one end to the other. But it’s harder, and goes against type.

Can you tell I’m stalling? That whole last paragraph along with this one are meant to convey the passage of time. I set the poem aside, perhaps for the end of the summer. But by then I had other projects. This fall I have been taking a couple of online Yiddish classes, have continued researching Simon’s newspaper and journal work, and have gone back to a second draft of my translation of Dos Kluge Shnayderl.

Did I put off reading this undiscovered gem to save it as a treat for later? Or was it that something seemed incongruous about the tone, so that I waited to decipher it until I was a little more confident? I don’t know for sure myself. But two weeks ago when I had an offer of help— a more fluent friend who wanted to read poetry with me— I dug it out and looked at it again.

In fact, I am a better reader now. It goes so slowly I lose sight of the fact that I am, in fact, learning. I was able to decipher most of the text and type it up to share with my friend. Luckily, his handwriting was clear. Or, mostly clear. One difference, between a teeny tiny straight line (the handwritten letter yud) and a small straight line (the letter vov) meant the poem was actually not what I had thought it was at all.


The title of the poem is not “Sonet tsu Tseyn” ציין (teeth) at all, but Sonet tsu Tsion . ציון Sonnet to Zion.


When I make mistakes like that I naturally feel sheepish, even a little ridiculous. [Never mind that the fault really lies in the original designer of the Hebrew alphabet. The letters yud, vov, and langer-nun are much too similar, distinguished only by length.] The greater the excitement the greater the deflation– just like I felt last summer when I gathered a whole group of people around me at the Yiddish Book Center to show them a copy I’d found of Mani Leib’s Sonnets that the poet had inscribed to my grandfather! “With a friendship of years,” it said. But I had not read the inscription all the way to the end. In fact, it was given to him by someone named Roshelle. Later, I learned those sonnets weren’t even published until after Mani Leib’s death.

Just so, I had gotten all excited about the so-called Sonnet to Teeth, and had shown it to some other people, and gotten them excited, too. What I thought was an amazing find turned out not to be. It was like a bad episode of Antiques Road Show, where everything is just junk. This feeling of deflation is accompanied by embarrassment. “Why did I get so excited before I even knew what I was doing or what I had?” Then, “What am I trying to accomplish, anyway?” And, finally, “I am way, way out of my league here. I started too old to ever get a handle on anything as complex as Yiddish language and culture. Who do I think I am?” So says the inner voice.

But, in fact, the real foolishness is this voice that reproaches. That “somebody named Roshelle” was in fact Roshelle Weprinsky, an important poet in her own right, and Mani Leib’s life companion. The object I thought a valuable treasure was, in fact, valuable; just for a slightly different reason than I thought. So, too, the Leyvik sonnet may or may not turn out to be a find. But even if not, I will have learned something. And in the end, I would rather be at least a little bit like the Chelmites, who rush off joyously at any new idea, despite having been wrong repeatedly in the past. At least they get to feel excited. At least they try.

Again we come around to the pleasures and virtues of not knowing. Not smugness in one’s ignorance, but the wonder of not knowing on the way to finding out. There’s a quote I like very much, attributed to Jeff Bezos: “If you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment.” Similarly, if you know what something is worth ahead of time, it’s probably not a discovery.


Part Four: How High Will the Splash Be?

It’s easy for a writer to get stuck. The delay between posts is not just from the lingering fog of our abysmal societal folly, which was the subject of Part Three. Even before I began, I was sure I knew what I wanted to say in Part Four (of six!), but have not been able to get there.

I wanted to write about the obsession with intelligence in my grandfather’s stories, in such a way as to parse out what was in fact clever and what was foolish of him. I also am fascinated by the legacy of that obsession in our family, but this can be tricky to write about without telling anyone’s stories that don’t belong to me. I also wanted to touch on the least funny of subjects— what we may morally or judiciously laugh at and how.

Then, since I was writing about Chelm and a new book on the subject arrived just as I was doing so, my writing got balled up in a new confusion. In the brand-new and interesting-looking book, How the Wise Men Got to Chelm, Simon’s work is barely touched on. Why does this keep happening? How can I make sense of and deal with the repeated neglect and undervaluing of him— both of his place in the Jewish intellectual world of his time, and of his relevance to ours? Perhaps this cannot be corrected from my perch as his eynikl, his grandson. After all, I freely admit to being biased. To make a long story short, the blog post had too much riding on it, and the horse kept changing directions. I got thrown off.

What would my grandfather say about overthinking something to the point where your thoughts get too big and too convoluted to be of use? He might tell the story of Berl Filozof. Once, Berl sat for three days without speaking, eating or drinking because a thought was trying to peck its way into his brain. His wife grew alarmed and called the rabbi. The rabbi came promptly and told him to stop and tell them what he was thinking about. Berl asked for more time. The rabbi left and on the fourth day came back again. Again, Berl asked for more time. This time the rabbi refused, and interrupted him to save his life.

And what was Berl thinking about? The short version: “If all the men in the world became one giant man; and if all the trees in the world became one giant tree; and if all the lakes in the world became one giant lake; and if all the axes in the world became one giant axe: And if that giant man took up the giant axe and gave a blow to the giant tree, and if the tree—imagine it, the vast thickness of the branches and all the trillions upon trillions of leaves—fell into that enormous lake… how high would the splash be?”

Narishkayt! Nonesense! But, what Berl was really after was to figure out the height of heaven, which, once you really understood the nature of matter and its limits, would necessarily follow. One asks oneself, are the Chelmites thinking wrongly about the right questions, or thinking rightly about the wrong questions? Are our own big bang scientists so different, working for a lifetime to determine what transpired in the first second of the universe’s origin? What is, and what is not worth thinking about for five days? Or, in my case, five years? It’s been three already, and once I turn to my grandfather’s books for adults, five would be fast work indeed. Berl was almost there, but his great thought was lost because he had to get off his bench and eat, and sleep. Let’s hope that physical constraints don’t keep me from that last step that will allow my imaginary tree to bear some actual fruit.

And now, a message from our sponsors: If you know and love a child between about six and about eleven years old, the English version The Wise Men of Helm is still in print, and is still a delight to read three quarters of a century after it was written. It should be on your gift list.


Why is it so good? First, the author took what were basically one liners, or brief joke stories, and elaborated them, spinning them out almost, but not quite, to the breaking point. He then chained these stories together into a coherent narrative and created a cast of characters, each of whom is foolish in a slightly different way. One is arrogant, another stolidly literal-minded. One is caught up in abstraction, one errs out of obstinacy, and one actually knows something but is never heard— he is considered a fool by the fools, and is too insecure to believe in his own understanding.

He had a great eye for detail. The book gives children a real feel for what traditional life was like in the old world, informing indirectly without ever writing down to them or being the least bit pedantic. The stories are hilarious and, occasionally, touching. You can get the books here, or directly from the publisher here.

Because he never wrote down to children, these stories are also fantastic for adult learners of Yiddish who need simple material that is interesting to grown-ups. You can download the Yiddish for free [link to Yiddish book center here] and read it by itself, or side by side with the English. The Yiddish is richly idiomatic and yields a whole other level that English cannot convey. I have again and again seen adults laugh out loud while reading these stories together.

But the stories make fun of stupid people! Yes, they do. Some values change, but Jews’ preoccupation with intelligence endures. On the surface, at least, we are kinder about it now. Open mocking of someone for their mistakes, at least in the extreme case of intellectual disability, is no longer tolerated in civil society. Let’s hope fervently that the current moment (in which a politician who publicly mocked a disabled person was still somehow permitted to rise to power) is an interruption, and not the new status quo.

But even in his own time, Simon’s stories succeeded because he was never mean-spirited. The title character of his book The Wandering Beggar, Shmerl, is a simpleton, but also a good man who is never stripped of his dignity. The Chelmites also possess a delightful optimism – they never reproach themselves, never get snarled in looking back or in recrimination, but always throw themselves into the next problem to be solved, full of hope and sure that their minds are up to the task.

However much we have learned in the meantime, we can all still relate to them. Who wouldn’t want to capture the moon in a barrel? And who has never, like Berl Filozof, become captivated, even immobilized, by his or her own thinking. Watch me grow spellbound by my own mind falling through space like an enormous tree. I know, when it finally hits, it will make an enormous splash.