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.I'm enjoying re-visiting these old friends who taught me so much, at a very young age, about the human condition.
"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!"
* They talked to me, though--my life was filled with lots of love, and I wouldn't change a thing.