May my fathers soul rest
in Paradise among all those
good and true, who have
sacrificed their lives and
helped humanity in their lives,
May the Allmighty give
me the strength to be as good
and true as my departed
Father in Heaven give me
the wisdom that I may carry
out my future plans, now that
my father cannot give me his
To his children and family he
shall remain immortal.
This lovely, homemade prayer distills Papa's efforts to mourn his father quite handily -- it's both a resolute vow to live his father's example and an apprehensive admission that he might not know how. If we look at it in the context of the last few weeks, we can also see it as another round in his fight to resist the simplicity of overwhelming grief and take on the far more difficult responsibility of honoring his father through constructive action. This leads me to a similar thought: having discovered traces of Papa in myself, how do I move beyond mere admiration and start to express his influence in my day-to-day life? I suppose many people face variations of this question in their lives. It's temptingly easy to become frozen in place by simple emotional reactions to life's circumstances -- awe, anger, depression, surprise, and on and on. It's far more difficult, but far more satisfying, to learn when and how to get on with things.
As affected as I am by Papa's diary entry for this day, I'm equally amazed that such a piece of writing was composed by someone who didn't learn English until he was 18 years old. Simple mastery of English is not the real surprise, since Diaspora Jews have always been inclined to embrace the language of whatever place they find themselves in (Papa spoke at least six other languages besides Yiddish since his hometown of Sniatyn was at a European crossroads). I'm more impressed by the economy of his prose, the layers of feeling he conveys in so little space (I see it even more in his more ordinary diary entries than I do in the entry above, which is structured as a plea and therefore expresses its emotions a bit more directly.)
I'm not really sure I'll ever be able to successfully describe the tone I'm talking about, but it's there regardless of whether Papa discusses Zionism or personal tragedy or baseball. It's some combination of wistfulness and wonder and resignation and irony, and it fills the spaces between his words like the low murmur of prayer from an unseen congregation.
Our friend Aviva recently pointed us to an article in The Threepenny Review in which the author, Leonard Michaels, examines what qualities his native Yiddish might bring to his English writing:
Is that what I hear in Papa's prose -- a "shrug" and a "lyrical note" inherent to Yiddish-speaking Diaspora Jews? It would be interesting to see what a linguistics scholar would make of his influences and structure. But, maybe it's better to stop analyzing it for now and just be content to sit here, frozen with admiration.
Yiddish is probably at work in my written English. This moment, writing in English, I wonder about the Yiddish undercurrent. If I listen, I can almost hear it: “This moment”—a stress followed by two neutral syllables—introduces a thought which hangs like a herring in the weary droop of “writing in English,” and then comes the announcement, “I wonder about the Yiddish undercurrent.” The sentence ends in a shrug. Maybe I hear the Yiddish undercurrent, maybe I don’t. The sentence could have been written by anyone who knows English, but it probably would not have been written by a well-bred Gentile. It has too much drama, and might even be disturbing, like music in a restaurant or an elevator. The sentence obliges you to abide in its staggered flow, as if what I mean were inextricable from my feelings and required a lyrical note. There is a kind of enforced intimacy with the reader. A Jewish kind, I suppose. In Sean O’Casey’s lovelier prose you hear an Irish kind.
- "My Yiddish," by Leonard Michaels appeared in the Fall 2003 issue of the Threepenny Review.