Tuesday, March 06, 2007

464. Old friends from Minsk

For a number of years during my childhood, my parents decided not to talk to each other.* They divorced when I was 11, a good choice for all involved. Prior to that, however, we spent many dinners in silence (punctuated by the occasional argument) at the kitchen table. My mother would ladle out a bowl of borscht for my father and perhaps frozen vegetables for she and I, and then we would hide behind our books and newspapers and enjoy the meal. I didn't know any other way to have dinner, so this process seemed quite normal. I had a hundred books at my disposal, but usually grabbed the same one: The Treasury of Jewish Folklore, 1948 edition, edited by Nathan Ausubel. It was big and thick, with dark blue binding held together by careful layers of fabric tape. It became my best friend at dinner times, doing all the talking and cajoling at our table of wordless chewing.

Almost every night, I would remove the book from its home on the shelf by the front door, sit down with my peas and carrots and parents, and open to a random page. Sometimes I headed for the ancient jokes in the middle ("Oy, kreplach!" was my favorite punchline), or the tales of really stupid people from the mythical city of Chelm. Occasionally I tried to brave the chapters at the back, dense prose about rabbis and miracles. I didn't know the history behind any of these stories, or how the Jewishness of people in dusty towns with unpronounceable names was in any way similar to mine. But I loved them just the same. I felt an immediate kinship to befuddled peasants who sought answers from wise men about how to live in a world rapidly changing from the safe, small one they once knew. My father, in his 60s when I was born--robust and muscular 60s, but an old man nevertheless--grew up in that world, and didn't quite fit into the current one. His existence before coming to the U.S. seemed like a big secret we weren't supposed to mention, although I wasn't sure why. Perhaps in response, I was determined to live the most modern of contemporary lives, and as I got older distanced myself from those old rabbis and archetypal villagers.

But the readings for my Me'ah class this week, 19th century Hassidic tales from The Golden Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe, transported me back to the dinner table, to a lamb chop in the company of Yudel the waggoner, poor farmers traveling from Pinsk to Minsk, and jokes like this:

A junk peddler on the East Side died. His widow collected two thousand dollars insurance.

"What miserable luck," she complained. "For forty years we lived in poverty and now that God has made us rich, Sol had to go and die!"

I'm enjoying re-visiting these old friends who taught me so much, at a very young age, about the human condition.


* They talked to me, though--my life was filled with lots of love, and I wouldn't change a thing.


BEING HAD said...

A beautify written piece. Rough on one side but gentle on the other. Thank you for posting it.

alto artist said...

Thank you so much.