For the general reader as well as for someone like me who grew up in what amounted to an American shtetl, the late Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle’s “Yiddishkeit” is a pure delight. Written in the “graphic novel” style that Pekar virtually invented (in his plebian style he preferred to call such works comic books), it draws together the repertory company of artists that the two writers drew upon so successfully in books on SDS and the beat generation and is a loving tribute to what Irving Howe once called “the world of our fathers”. Pekar’s work on this project was a kind of swan song since he died before it was published.
Although the book is a joy from cover to cover, the best part for me was the shrewd assessment of Yiddish authors by Harvey Pekar who finds Isaac Bashevis Singer, the most preeminent of them all, somewhat lacking.
Throughout his career, Pekar has always sought to shed light on artists who deserved wider recognition, whether they were local Cleveland jazz musicians or writers from the 1920s and 30s never taught in Freshmen literature courses. He rescues the aptly named Moshe Nadir from obscurity, describing him as the “major Jewish avant-garde literary figure”. Nadir wrote for a Communist paper and visited the Soviet Union in 1926, claiming that Communism would wipe out human misery. The Stalin-Hitler pact disillusioned him, however, just as it did so many writers from this period.
Beyond the writers covered by Pekar, the book serves as an introduction to Yiddish culture in general with sections on Yiddish theater and film, as well as profiles of famous Yiddish-speaking personalities from the past, including Abe Polonsky, the subject of a Buhle biography.
In the book’s prologue, Pekar explains his own engagement with a language that has virtually died off except for the Hasidic sects based mostly in Brooklyn. His parents both spoke Yiddish, as did he when he was young. He says, “The colorfulness of Yiddish and the rhythm of Yiddish made it fun to listen to, even though I was losing touch with it.”
This was almost my experience as well. Although I never really learned to speak Yiddish, I learned hundreds of words working in my father’s fruit and vegetable store when young. In the 1950s, most of my father’s customers in their 60s and 70s who came up to the Catskills during the summer were immigrants who preferred to speak Yiddish. I would ask them, “Vus vilsta” (that’s the way I remember it) which meant: “what would you like”. My biggest regret is not studying the language when young instead of wasting my time going to Hebrew school. Hebrew was the language necessary to recite one’s haftarah, or bar mitzvah recitation. You never knew the meaning of the words you were reciting, only how to pronounce them. Such empty rituals goes far to explain why Judaism is a dying religion in the U.S.
For his part, Paul Buhle had it over both Pekar and me, having mastered Yiddish as part of his oral history project interviewing veterans of the left who were in their 80s and older. Since most of them could only express themselves in Yiddish, he studied the language as both a scholarly and political obligation. This experience gave him an affinity for Yiddish culture that has stuck with him over the years as expressed through earlier works like “Jews and American Comics” and the three-volume “Jews and American Popular Culture”. The irony of course is that Buhle is not Jewish himself, although at this point our tribe should admit him as an honorary member. In a section of “Yiddishkeit” titled Guide to Celebrities, we discover that he is in good company. Cab Calloway, Paul Robeson, and James Cagney all learned to speak Yiddish as well.
Speaking of Robeson, there’s a powerful tale told in “Yiddishkeit” about the great singer and activist’s divided loyalties between the Jews he felt such affection toward and the Soviet Union. In 1949 when Robeson went to Moscow to perform in concert, he asked to see his old friend Itzik Feffer, a Yiddish poet. He was told that Feffer had been killed in an automobile accident, an obvious lie. He later met Feffer quite by accident who informed Robeson that Yiddish artists were being purged, including poet Shloyme Mikhoels who had been executed. That evening, Robeson dedicated a Yiddish song to Mikhoels in defiance of the authorities. The audience wept at this and gave him a standing ovation. Unfortunately Robeson went no further in criticizing repression in the USSR out of a fear that this would increase anti-Communist passions in the U.S., a fatal flaw for both the C.P. and other groups on the left over the years.
I feel a special affinity for this marvelous book since Paul Buhle is a very good friend. But this is not a case of doing him a favor by lavishing praise since the respect he has earned in the course of writing over 40 books geared to the left and to lovers of Yiddish culture speaks for itself.
It was through Paul that I met Harvey Pekar who I had the good fortune to work with on a comic book about my life that will likely remain unpublished for reasons too convoluted to go into here. Back in 2008 I got a call from Paul asking me if I could put Harvey up for the night. Since I had been a huge fan of his work over the years, I was more than happy to extend some hospitality.
As someone who had become to think of himself as a kind of Studs Terkel figure, eliciting other people’s stories rather than recycling his own that he had likely grown tired of telling, he was curious to find out where I was coming from.
I spun out a tale of growing up in the Borscht Belt in the 1950s where people like Molly Picon, Moishe Oysher and Menashe Skolnik had performed in local hotels and at the Kentucky Club, a cabaret that our family lived directly above in our tiny village (shtetl). I told him about spending time with Barney Ross, the former boxer, WWII veteran, and drug addict whose life was dramatized in the 1957 film “Monkey on my Back”. Barney was the greeter at the Kentucky Club and would stand outside the club in his white tuxedo smoking a cigarette, lost in his thoughts. I was around 10 at the time and enjoyed chatting with him and taking occasional lessons about how to deliver a left jab.
I also told him about the “Mighty Atom”, née Joseph Greenstein, a self-styled Jewish strong man who was a vegetarian, wore his hair long like Samson, and performed stunts like bending an iron bar across his forehead even into his 80s at his bungalow colony in my village. Like Ross and the Mighty Atom, there was another strong man who came up to my village in the summertime. The powerfully built and mercurial Sid Caesar used to stay at the Avon Lodge, a hotel just a mile or so outside of town. He spent hours on end at the firing range near the hotel, working out his “spielkus” energy (another Yiddish word; it means “nervous”—at least that’s the way I remember it.) In partnership with the husband of my high school librarian, who turned me on to James Joyce’s “Dubliners” in 1959, the owner of the Avon Lodge built a bungalow colony called “Grine Felder”, in honor of the great Yiddish film of the 1930s that is translated into a comic book version in “Yiddishkeit”.
The Grine Felder was built in order to cater to Jewish Communist and Socialist vacationers who had become dissatisfied with a bungalow colony and gathering place that they considered second-rate. The bungalows were named after important Jewish figures, from Isaac Bashevis Singer (notwithstanding Harvey Pekar) to Emma Goldman.
None of this wonderful culture exists today. The Yiddish-speaking generation of my grandparent’s generation has died off. The only people who speak Yiddish today are the Hasidim, the insular and backward sect that all of the Yiddish writers reviewed by Pekar had an ambivalent relationship to. They hated the superstitions and the subservience to the Grand Rabbis but felt compelled to write about the experience of being a Jew in Eastern Europe or Czarist Russia, which included being part of this world.
With Jews being so thoroughly assimilated in the U.S. today, there is obviously a question as to the cultural relevance of Yiddishkeit today. As Paul Buhle pointed out in a memorable lecture I attended some years ago, being Jewish today does not mean speaking Yiddish or going to synagogue on Saturday. It means being committed to social justice and tolerance, values that are shared by young progressive Jews standing up for Palestinian rights. It also means having a sense of humor, especially about one’s one foibles. Anybody who has seen an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” will immediately understand that Yiddishkeit is alive and well on those terms.
But more strikingly, there is evidence of a Yiddish renaissance today. The book has a chapter on Aaron Lansky, who spoke on a panel discussion with Paul Buhle a couple of months ago in conjunction with the publication of “Yiddishkeit”. Lansky is the founder and executive director of the Yiddish Book Center, a library with thousands of books rescued from the garbage bins. At the center’s website, he describes his passion for Yiddish as follows:
I was 19 when I began studying Yiddish. Suddenly an entire universe opened up to me. It was like discovering Atlantis, a lost continent, a treasure-trove of Jewish tradition and culture, sensibility, wisdom and passion, all locked up in this amazing modern literature.
This passion is obviously shared by many young people who have been downloading electronic books in Yiddish by the hundreds of thousands. Where this is all going is hard to say. One might conjecture that enthusiasm for Yiddish has something to do with rediscovering a Jewish identity that resists assimilation as well as the litmus test imposed by the state of Israel that has done everything in its power to make Yiddish a dead language. As the language of a people who have used their sense of humor and their rejection of the kind of crass ambition associated with the Bernie Madoff’s and Lloyd Blankfein’s of the world, the Yiddish language is a step in the right direction as is Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle’s magnificent “Yiddishkeit”.