VOCABULARY ENHANCEMENT WITH YINGLISH

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IMG_0743I grew up without Yiddish.  The parental language in our house, reserved for matters I was not supposed to understand, was Russian.  But you couldn’t not hear Yiddish, at least little bit, if the place where you grew up, as I did, was New York.

It initially came from my first serious boyfriend — in other respects a highly literate and scholarly looking youth reading Great Books at the University of Chicago.  There was a hiatus during my years in California, where I was married to a man who was not Jewish. But eventually that husband and I returned to the Big Apple, where I earned our daily bread writing copy in advertising agencies with Seventh Avenue clients and therefore at the time heavily Jewish. Then — after a divorce — came movies from Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, and a second husband steeped in what Bill says were badly pronounced Yiddish words. (When  really angry, this second husband would stomp up the stairs shouting what sounded like:  “Quit ‘hocking me to China!’ ”  Bill says what he should have been shouting was “hok a chainik,” which means, colloquially, “talk someone’s ear off, yammer, yak” — although you don’t need to know that, even if I now do.)   Finally came Bill, whose grandmother — with whom he lived for several years — spoke nothing but. Which means he understands it.  Not as a language imbibed with mother’s milk, but close.

Understandably, over the course of all those years of intimacy with Yiddish users a few colorful Yiddish expressions have crept into my day-to-day discourse.  How could they not?  There’s nothing like them in English!  You can go round and round the bush with your proper Anglo-Saxon circumlocutions till you’re blue in the face, or get right to the point with a choice bit of Yinglish!  In fact, lots of people in and around New York and Los Angeles already have.  It wasn’t me who made up that word, “Yinglish.”   It’s right there in black and white in Leo Rosten’s “The New Joys of Yiddish” (completely updated), as published by Three Rivers Press.  Yinglish is particularly rich in deprecation and insult, which is always useful.  In addition, it’s handy for philosophic one- or two-word summaries of life.  The Rosten book is also fun because it not only shows you how to pronounce whatever it is, but also gives illustrations of its usage, often in humorous anecdotal form.

Feel like dipping a toe in the water?  I’m glad.  Because here come a dozen vocabulary enhancements right out of “The New Joys of Yiddish.”  What follows is not in quotation format only because I’ve selectively abridged each entry, and have also paraphrased in places.  However,the content is all Rosten’s.  Enjoy.

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1.     klutz.  Rhymes with “butts.” A clod; a clumsy, slow-witted, graceless person; an inept blockhead.

Anecdote:  To Mr. Meyers, in the hospital, came Mr. Glotz, secretary of the synagogue, who said:  “I bring you the good wishes of our board of trustees, that you should get well and live to be a hundred and ten years old!  That’s an official resolution, passed by a vote of fourteen to seven!”  Glotz was a klutz.

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2.     kvell.  Pronounced exactly as it’s spelled.  (1)  To beam with immense pride and pleasure, most commonly over an achievement of a child or grandchild.  “Watch her kvell when she reads his report card.”  (2)  To enjoy, gloat, or crow over someone’s defeat or humiliation.  “All right, be charitable, don’t kvell over his mistake.”

Anecdote:  (Mrs. Kovarsky is kvelling.)  Two ladies met on the Grand Concourse, Mrs. Blumenfeld carrying her groceries, Mrs. Kovarsky pushing a pram with two little boys in it.

“Good morning, Mrs. Kovarsky.  Such darling boys!  So how old are they?”

“The doctor,” said Mrs. Kovarsky, “is three, and the lawyer is two.”

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3.     kvetch.  Pronounced to rhyme with “fetch.”  As a verb:  To fret, complain, gripe, grunt, sigh.  “What’s she kvetching about now?”  As a noun:  Anyone, male or female, who complains, frets, gripes, or magnifies minor aches and pains.  “What a congenital kvetch!”  “Don’t invite him to the party; he’s a kvetch.”

Anecdote:  There’s a prized lapel button that reads:

FRANZ KAFKA

IS A

KVETCH.

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4.     mitzva.  Pronounced to rhyme with “fits a.”  (1) Commandment; divine commandment; (2) A meritorious act, one that expresses God’s will;  a “good work,” a truly virtuous, kind, considerate, ethical deed.  Mitzvas are regarded as profound obligations….yet they must be performed with a “joyous heart.”   If you do something especially honorable, kind or considerate, a Jew may say, beaming, “Oh, that was a mitzva!” or “You performed a real mitzva!”

Anecdote: At the end of a pier in Tel Aviv, a man was about to jump into the sea when a policeman came running up to him.  “No, no,” he cried. “How can a man like you, in the prime of life, think of jumping into that water?”

“Because I can’t stand it anymore!  I don’t want to live!”

“But listen, mister, please.  If you jump in the water, I’ll have to jump in after you, to save you.  Right?  Well, it so happens I can’t swim.  Do you know what that means?  I have a wife and four children, and in the line of duty I would drown! Would you want to have such a terrible thing on your conscience?  No, I’m sure.  So be a good Jew, and do a real mitzva. Go home.  And in the privacy and comfort of your own home, hang yourself.”

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5.     naches.  Pronounced to rhyme with “Loch Ness” — with the kh sound a Scot would use in pronouncing “loch.”  (This is a noun somewhat related to the verb, kvell.)  It means proud pleasure or special joy — particularly from the achievements of a child.  Jews use the word naches to describe the glow of pleasure plus pride that only a child can give to its parents.  “I have such naches: my son was voted president of his play group.”  Alternatively, a self-pitying sort with under-achieving grown offspring might complain: “I get no naches from my children.”

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6.     gonif.  Pronounced to rhyme with “Don if.”

  • Thief, crook.
  • A clever person.
  • An ingenious child.
  • A dishonest businessman.
  • A shady, tricky character it would be wise (a) not to trust, and (b) to watch every minute he’s in the store.
  • A mischievous, fun-loving prankster.

The particular meaning depends on context, tone of voice, inflection, and accompanying gestures.  If uttered with a beam, a grin or an admiring raising of the hands, gonif is clearly laudatory. Thus, a proud grandparent will say of a child, metaphorically, “Oh, is that a gonif!”  If uttered with pulled-down mouth, in a lugubrious tone, or with heartfelt dismay, the meaning is clearly derogatory:  “A gonif like that shouldn’t be allowed among respectable citizens.” Uttered in steely detachment (“That one is, plain and simple, a gonif“), the word describes a crook, thief, trickster. Said in admiration, with a wink, cluck, or shake of the head (” I tell you, there’s a gonif!”), the phrasing is equivalent to “There’s a clever cookie.”

Anecdote:  The first day home from school, little Milton was met by his mother who ran out eagerly to greet him.   “So what did you learn?”

“I learned to write,” said Milton.

“On the first day already you learned to write?  Gonif!  So what do you write?

“How should I know?” said Milton.  “I can’t read.”

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7.     nudnik.  Rhymes with “could pick.”  A pest, an annoyer, a monumental bore.  A nudnik is not just a nuisance; to merit use of the term nudnik, a nuisance must be a most persistent, talkative, obnoxious, indomitable, and indefatigable nag.  A mother often says to a child:  “Stop bothering me.  Don’t be a nudnik.”

Anecdote:  Mr. Polanski complained to his doctor:  “Something terrible has happened to me.  I try to stop it, but I can’t…. Morning, noon and night — I keep talking to myself.”

“Now, now,” the doctor crooned. “That isn’t such a bad habit. Why, thousands of people do it.”

“But doctor,” protested Polanski, you don’t know what a nudnik I am!”

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8.     nu.  (Or nu?)  Pronounced “noo,” to rhyme with “coo,” but with various intonations and meanings.  Nu is the word most frequently used (aside from oy and the articles) in speaking Yiddish, and with good reason.  It is the verbal equivalent of a sigh, a frown, a grin, a grunt, a sneer.  It is an expression of amusement or recognition or uncertainty or disapproval.  It can be used fondly, acidly, belligerently.  It is a qualification, an emphasizer, an interrogation, a caster of doubt, an arrow of ire.  It can convey pride, deliver scorn, demand response.  As in the following:

  • Nu?”  (Well?)
  • “I saw you come out of her apartment.  Nu?” (So-o?)
  • Nu?” (How are things with you?)
  • Nu?” (What’s new?)
  • Nu, after such a request, what could I do?”  (Well, then.)
  • “I need the money…. Nu?”  (How about it?)
  • “….and he walked right out.  Nu?!”  (How do you like that?  Imagine!)
  • Nu, I guess that’s all.” (I’ll be finishing, or going along now.)
  • “….and you’re supposed to be there by noon.  Nu?” (What are you waiting for?)
  • Nu-nu?”  (Come on, open up, tell me.)
  • “My wife was wondering what happened to the coffeepot she lent you….Nu?” (I hate to mention it, but — –)
  • “Did you or didn’t you tell him?  Nu?” (I challenge you.)
  • “They waited and waited.  Nu, he finally showed up.” (And so, in the course of time.)
  • “She accused him, he blamed her.  Nu, it ended in court.” (One thing led to another, and …)

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9.     ongepotchket.  Pronounced to rhyme with “Fonda Lodge kit.”  (a)  Slapped together or assembled without form or sense; (b) messed up, excessively and anesthetically decorated; overly baroque.  “She wore her new diamond earrings, a necklace, bracelet, two rings, and a brooch.  Oy, was she ongepotchket!

Anecdote:  Mr. Fleishman, a new art collector, bought a painting that was much admired by his friend Meyerson, a self-proclaimed expert.  The painting was one large square of black, with a dot of white in the center.  A year later, Mr. Fleishman bought another painting by the same modernist genius:  a large black square with two white dots.  Proudly, Fleishman hung the picture over his fireplace and telephoned his friend Meyerson to come right over.  Meyerson took one look at the picture and wrinkled his nose:  “I don’t like it.  Too ongepotchket.

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10.     shmatte. Pronounced to rhyme with “pot a.”

  • A rag.  “You call that a dress?  It’s a shmatte.”
  • A person unworthy of respect; someone you can wipe your feet on.  “They treated her like a shmatte.”  “What am I, a shmatte?” “Stand up for your rights; don’t be a shmatte!”

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11.    pisher.  Rhymes with “fisher.”  A vulgarism, meaning ( a) a bed-wetter; (b) a young, inexperienced person; or (c) an inconsequential or insignificant person, a nobody.  Literally, a pisher is one who urinates; but in present and popular usage “He’s a mere pisher” means “He’s very young.  He’s still wet behind the ears.”  Similarly, “He’s just a pisher,” means “He’s a nobody and has no influence.”

Anecdote:  In France, an elderly Jew, tired of hearing a young man boast of his ancestry, finally said, “Listen, La Fontaine: I knew your grandfather, who changed his name to La Fontaine from Schpritzwasser [Squirtwater]. And he told me that his father changed his name to Schpritzwasser from what everyone called him, which was Moishe the Pisher!  So please don’t put on airs, La Fontaine!

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12.    Oy.  Oy isn’t a word; it’s a vocabulary.  It’s uttered in as many ways as the utterer’s histrionic ability permits.  It’s a lament, a protest, a cry of dismay, a reflex of delight — the most expressive and ubiquitous exclamation in Yiddish.  Oy is often used as lead-off for oy-vey!” — which means, literally, “oh, pain!” but is used as an all-purpose ejaculation to express anything from trivial delight to abysmal woe.  Oy vey! is the short form of “oy vey iz mir!“, an omnibus phrase for everything from personal pain to emphatic condolences.  (Vey comes from the German weh, meaning “woe.”) As for the difference between oy! and ah!, there is of course a saying to illustrate the distinction:  “When you jump into cold water you cry, “Oy!” and then, enjoying it, say, “A-aah.”  When you commit a sin, you revel in the pleasure, “A-aah”; then, realizing what you’ve done, you cry, “Oy!”

Oy, accordingly, can be used, for example, to express

  • Apprehension.  “Maybe he’s sick?  Oy!”
  • Uncertainty. “What should I do? Oy, I wish I knew!”
  • Euphoria. “Was I happy? Oy! I was dancing on air!”
  • Joy. “Oy, what a party!”
  • Contentment. “Oy, was that a delicious dinner!”
  • Surprise. “She heard a noise and exclaimed, ‘Oy! Who’s there?””
  • Dismay. “Oy! I gained ten pounds!”
  • Regret.  “Him we have to invite? Oy!”
  • Astonishment.  “Oy, how he’s changed!”
  • Revulsion.Feh.  Who could eat that?  O-oy!
  • Pain.  “Oy, it hurts!”

And so forth.  Anecdote:  Mrs. Fishbein’s phone rang.  “Hul-lo,” a cultivated voice intoned. “I’m telephoning to ask whether you and your husband can come to a tea for Lady Windermere—-”

Oy,” cut in Mrs. Fishbein.  “Have you got the wrong number!”

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Nu?  Enough already?  We haven’t even begun on the fine differences in meaning between calling a male someone a shmuck, shnook, shlump, shmo, shlemiel, shlimazel, shlepper, shmegegge, shmendrick or shnorrer — all very useful insults in a well developed vocabulary.  (Not to mention momzer and nebbish.) However, anyone who wants a second post delving into these matters has only to ask.  “The New Joys of Yiddish” is a very thick book.  Oy, is it ever!

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SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH BILL

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Marquand Park is an arboretum and recreational area at the corner of Lovers Lane and Stockton Street in Princeton, New Jersey.  It has walking paths, a baseball field, expanses of grassy lawn and attractions for young children, such as a playground structure and a sandbox with trucks and sand toys belonging to the town. The park gets its name from Princeton University professor Allan Marquand, who acquired a parcel of property at this location in 1885.  In 1953, the Marquand family donated seventeen acres of it to the town for use as a park, and in 1955 a non-profit foundation was created to care for the new park.  Marquand Park now features over 100 species of trees and shrubs — none of which I can identify for you, although each has a small name plate telling you what you might want to know about it.

But one needn’t be an arborist to visit the park.  Especially in the spring and fall, it’s lovely to stroll its paths, or sit on the grass or on one of the conveniently located benches.  Last Sunday,  which was Mother’s Day, Bill and I did just that. The weather was glorious. If we turn the calendar back, you can come along too…..  Be warned, though:  there’s a lot to see, beginning with the views from the parking lot:

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The children’s area is closest to the parking lot:

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IMG_0590 IMG_0595

IMG_0732But then we leave children behind and enter the park proper:

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IMG_0610IMG_0613Now we come into a shaded area:

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IMG_0619IMG_0620IMG_0621IMG_0623IMG_0625IMG_0626IMG_0627IMG_0628IMG_0632IMG_0633IMG_0636IMG_0637IMG_0638And here comes the sun again:

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IMG_0645IMG_0646IMG_0649IMG_0651A private house adjoins the park.

IMG_0652IMG_0654IMG_0655IMG_0656IMG_0657IMG_0658IMG_0660Time for a rest?  Probably….

 

IMG_0698IMG_0594Views from the bench:

IMG_0661IMG_0663IMG_0668IMG_0673IMG_0674Better get up and get going again….

IMG_0670IMG_0664IMG_0666IMG_0667IMG_0702IMG_0703IMG_0705IMG_0710IMG_0713IMG_0721[We’re nearly back to the car.  Just a little farther….]

IMG_0723IMG_0725IMG_0726IMG_0728IMG_0737And here we are!

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I warned you there’d be a lot to see.

But wasn’t it a lovely day?

DIANE KEATON SPEAKS IN PRINCETON ABOUT GETTING OLD!

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[A little something light after all that heavy reading about war, revolution and loss….]

IMG_0564 I wasn’t there.  I wouldn’t dream of driving across dreaded Route 1 to the Hyatt Regency to squeeze myself into a sold-out event sponsored by Princeton Healthcare System and attended by more than 1,000 people.  But I did avidly consume a report of the occasion by one Jennifer Kohlhepp (who I do not know) for the May 9, 2014 issue of “The Princeton Packet,” a throw-away town paper that usually goes straight from our front lawn into the recyclable garbage.  I suspect the report was written as local “news.”  I devoured it as celebrity gossip, to which I’m never averse as long as (a) I know the name of the celebrity it’s about; and (b) it’s free reading.

Knowing who celebrity gossip is about isn’t as easy as it used to be at the time I was a more au courant viewer of movies and television.  These days, when I no longer have exhausting ten-hour work days to recover from, I almost never watch the junk that passes for television entertainment.  As a result, I couldn’t tell you anything about those vapid-looking youngsters on the pages of “People Magazine” — which I idly peruse (for free) while waiting in line at the local supermarket to check out with my month’s supply of paper towels, toilet paper and like that.

But Diane Keaton?  She’s 68.  I knew her (in a manner of speaking) when.  What’s more, the reason for her appearance in these parts is that she’s written a book, recently published, called “Let’s Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty” — which Jennifer Kohlhepp has given me to understand is right up the alley of this blog:  a memoir of thirteen stories that explore life, beauty and aging in a world obsessed with appearances, “according to Ms. Keaton.”

I will make the not particularly rash assumption that you too did not attend the event, and that you might even be mildly interested in learning what this usually pleasant and unpretentious movie star had to offer from the podium at the Hyatt Regency on the subject of getting old. (Especially if you have nothing better to do with three minutes or so.) So without more ado, I offer you snippets from Ms. Kohlhepp’s account of the proceedings. [With a few asides from me within brackets.]

Ms. Keaton said she would like to ask her contemporaries if they look in the mirror, sigh and ask themselves what old age is for — why the liver spots, wrinkles, hair turning color, vocal cords changing, diminished eyesight, and reduced mental and cognitive thinking.  [Me butting in about this last bit:  “Oh yeah?  Who sez?”]

“On the bonus side, I’ve become friends with some of my business contemporaries,” Ms. Keaton said.  “One is Jack Nicholson.  When I first met Jack Nicholson it was not possible to be his friend … I didn’t want to be his friend.”

After they filmed “Something’s Gotta Give,” the two became good pals, with Ms. Keaton going to his ranch once a month for lunch, she said.  She then read a letter she wrote to him about “looking out for him” and “having his back.”  [Me again:  Is he infirm?  Has something happened to him that I’ve missed?]

Later she focused on her relationship with Woody Allen.  The duo still walks through New York City like they used to when they were young, “but not holding hands,” Ms. Keaton said.

One of the last times they met in the city, she said, “He looked at me with a really long gaze and mentioned I had a kind of beauty that required a beekeeper’s hat.”  [Me:  Is that a friend?]

In grappling with getting old, the self-proclaimed baby boomer said she has learned that 42 percent of her generation are extending retirement and 25% are not retiring.  Her research has also determined that she has a life expectancy of 86.

“I’m going to try my best to make the most of these 18 years,” she said.  “Being old is a gut leveling experience.  I’m in preparation for the incomprehensible … end zone of life.  I’m going to deepen my laugh lines and enjoy the underrated beauty of humanity….”

Ms. Keaton ended her talk saying, “One thing resonates … old is gold.”

Participants had the opportunity to ask Ms. Keaton questions through a moderator.  In answering, she said she would never return to Broadway because she doesn’t like performing in front of real people.  She also said she was the only person in the original cast of “Hair” who wouldn’t take her clothes off.

“Now that I’m older, I would love to take my clothes off, if you only ask me,” Ms. Keaton said.  [Me:  She’s got to be kidding!  Or else she’s in unbelievable shape! An aging female friend and I once agreed that if we were ever to start in again with a new man (and without clothes), it would have to be in the semi-dark and missionary position.  That way all the loose bits would hang down and out of sight of the one on top.]

Her greatest challenge as a woman has been raising two children at “a late age in life” and her greatest enjoyment in being an actress was “kissing all those men.”

On dating Warren Beatty, she said, “It was good.”

When asked what destination she has on her bucket list, she said “Heaven.”  [She’s evidently a double optimist.] 

In answering the final question, Ms. Keaton said, “Laughter is just everything.”

Well, there you have it.  Now you don’t have to read the book.  And aren’t you glad you missed going?  I bet she wishes she could have missed going, too.  If only churning out a book didn’t mean you also had to promote it…..

THE GIRL WHO BECAME MY MOTHER (PART VI)

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[Continued from five previous posts: “My mother was born on or about July 16, 1904 in or near what was then Vilna, Russia, to Vladimir Vainschtain and Berta Isaakovna Vainschtain (nee Shulman)….” When she was ten, her father died and her mother took her and her five-year-old brother to Baku, where she was sent to live with a married half-sister.]

IMG_0563LIFE IN BAKU.  This is what I know about my mother’s life in Baku:

School.  She said she had not been a remarkable student, and did not especially like school. Her best subject was mathematics. On a scale of 0 to 5, her marks — I am using her term — were always 5 in mathematics, usually 4 in everything else. (Mathematics probably meant arithmetic, at least at first, although later it would also have had to include algebra, geometry, and maybe even calculus.)  However, her academic performance was good enough to win her one of the few places reserved for Jewish girls in a “gymnasium” — one of the official schools in Tsarist Russia from which a diploma was necessary for entry to any institution of higher education.  Admittance to a gymnasium — for everyone — was by examination, but  the competition for the few Jewish places was fierce, especially where the Jewish population was large. According to a memorandum my father wrote of his own early life in Russia, the Jewish quota for all officially approved schools was ten percent of the student population. My father added that when his brother, five years older than he was, took the examination, there were not many Jewish families in Baku, and even fewer Jewish children, so it was relatively easy to win a place. But when the time came for him to apply, it was a different story!  A flood of people had come south, fleeing first the war, then the Communist takeover in the north — and of course among them many more Jewish families. My mother was two years younger than my father; her own disclaimers about her scholastic achievement to the contrary, her performance on the entrance examination must therefore have been very good indeed.

Piano.  She had wanted to learn to play the piano, perhaps because cousin Lisa had played. Lessons were available to her, but her half-sister had no piano on which she could practice. For a short while she tried to practice on the school piano after hours, when it was not in use. But this seems not to have worked out, and she soon gave up. When I was seven and she was thirty-four, my father bought a Steinway baby grand on time (monthly payments) and arranged for me to have lessons. My mother was very proud of that piano; it had the place of honor in our living room. Every day she dusted it lovingly and carefully wiped down the ivory keys one by one. But when I — the helpful seven-year-old — suggested that now we had a piano she could take lessons too and practice while I was in school, she shook her head. “No, it’s too late,” she said.

Crushes. As she entered adolescence, she lavished love on famous women opera singers and actresses. She even brought the cardboard-backed photograph of one of them to America — her favorite, I suppose.IMG_0541 It shows a  svelte woman in a floor-length dress and a long looped string of pearls looking up at the ceiling dramatically. The photograph is signed (in Cyrillic lettering) Vera Kholodnaya; I have no idea who the woman was.  Perhaps a silent film star? A renowned soprano? I remember my mother singing snatches of arias from Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegin while she did her housework when I was little.  [As a result, I can sing them, too:  “Shto-tyi, Lenski, nyi tansooi-ish?” Why, Lenski? Why aren’t you dancing?]

Appearances. One summer, she said, she had only two dresses, both white. But every day, she would wash and iron one and wear the other, so that she was always clean and neat.

Dieting. She also dieted, allowing herself every day only one small bunch of grapes and one piece of bread. [Here she would draw with her two forefingers on the kitchen table the outline of the square of bread which had been her self-imposed allotment.] She must have had iron self control. As for the length of time she maintained this spartan program, she never said. Telling me about it, when I myself was trying to slim down for college, was supposed to be inspirational. But by then I recognized a recipe for certain failure when I heard it, and did not seek further detail. My generation counted calories.

Vanity. She squeezed her feet into shoes that were too small for her because small feet, she said, were fashionable in Russia and she was vain. (It may also have been that during wartime and afterwards, pretty shoes were hard to find and you took what there was.) When I was growing up, she wore a 6 ½ and then a 7. She said that in Russia she had sometimes tried to get into a 4. As a result, she developed enormous red bunions that distorted the shape of her feet and later gave her much pain and many visits to chiropodists. It was not until she was nearly eighty that she gave up wearing stylish shoes and consented to become an old lady in sneakers.

Starvation. After the Red Army arrived in Baku in 1920, food became scarce. Soon there were no more potatoes. No more grapes. Bread was rationed. And what bread was available was so adulterated with sand she developed canker sores from malnutrition.

Romance.  At seventeen, she had a boyfriend. He was blond, with light-colored eyes; his oddly combed hair featured a wave at the upper left temple. He appears at the right side of the front row of a group photograph of university students, sitting on the ground and wearing a jacket with some kind of medal hanging on it.  My mother, unsmiling and plump (despite the diet), with long brown hair loosely heaped up beneath a large hat, is seated near the center of the second row.

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Although they’re not sitting near each other, I know the blond one with the wave is the boyfriend because among the photographs she brought with her from Russia is a separate small photo of the same young man; the hair, wave and medal are identical.

IMG_0550On the back of the small photo, in pale violet writing so faint it would be illegible even if I could read Russian, is a personal message to my mother from the subject of the photograph.  They saw each other for about six months, she said. Once she also told me they were engaged. I now think this means she slept with him, a confidence she would never have shared with me at the time in so many words. [After becoming a mother, she put her own past conduct behind her and adopted the two principles on which American mothers were then allegedly raising their daughters: (1) Men want only one thing; and (2) No man will marry used goods.]

Another loss.  This fiancé was not my father. So how did they break up?  (At last, a juicy part of the story!)  My mother pursed her lips and smoothed the sleeve of one of my father’s dress shirts on the ironing board before sprinkling it with water from a glass. “His family was connected to the nobility,” she said. “So they arrested him.”  And? The hot iron made a sizzling sound on the damp shirt. “We went every day to the prison.” She didn’t explain who “we” was. “Until we found his name on the list.” “What list?” I asked. “The list of those who had been shot. ” My mother turned my father’s shirt over on the ironing board to do the back.

MY FATHER.  Not long afterwards, my mother met my father, an engineering student at the Technology Institute in Baku –probably during the summer she turned eighteen, or just before.  “How did you meet?” I asked.  “At university,” she answered.  My father was more specific.  They had mutual friends, who introduced them on the esplanade running along the shore of the Caspian Sea.  Four or five months later, he managed to bring her out of Communist Russia with him. They made this exodus sound simple when I first heard of it.  He asked if she wanted to come.  She went to ask her mother if she should go.  Her mother’s response is the only thing she ever told me Berta Isaakovna said to her.  There was no equivocation:  “If you can get out, get out.  There’s nothing for you here.”  My grandmother also sold a featherbed and a pair of pearl earrings to give my mother the money to pay her passage.

But it wasn’t simple.  “Getting out” was far from easy.  However, I have already written that story elsewhere. It appeared in an online magazine called Persimmontree. You can read it here, if you like. This may therefore be a good place to stop, before my mother and father reach America, speaking no English, but leaving war, hunger, and executions behind them forever.

When they were both in their early eighties and my father happy to reminiscence, I asked him once why he had invited my mother,  met so recently, to come with him to America. He thought about it for a moment, smiled, and said, “I wanted sex.”  I looked at my mother — that staunch advocate in my girlhood of “Men don’t marry used goods.”

“Mama, was this true?”  She nodded sheepishly, and lowered her head.  And never mentioned it again.  But who’s to say she was wrong to succumb so quickly, and so soon after the execution of the first fiancé?  I have to be glad she did, or I wouldn’t be here to tell you about it.

My mother’s experiences in America may well have further shaped the girl of eighteen who arrived on Ellis Island.  But what she experienced in those first eighteen years — the repeated losses, deprivations, dislocations, fear (whether or not I have got the details quite right) — was formative.  They crippled her as a person, a woman, a mother.  Until she died she was afraid of “them” and what “they” might do.  (You couldn’t ask who “they” were.  She didn’t know.)  She placed excessive value on “money,” both overly respecting and also envying those who had the security and comforts it could buy.  She thought you were nothing without a man, you must do all you could as a young woman to attract one, and then once you had him devote yourself to him and his needs for the rest of your life so as not to lose him  — irrespective of the cost to your own needs and happiness.  She thought it was safest to stay home, it was bad to be Jewish, it was good to be beautiful.  Once I was no longer a little girl, it was never easy to be her daughter.  But that’s another story.

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So I will leave you with one last photograph of my mother and father on the streets of New York, six months after they arrived in America.  It was the summer of 1923, when she was nineteen and he was twenty-one and their whole grown-up life in a new country was still to come.

 

THE GIRL WHO BECAME MY MOTHER (PART V)

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IMG_0534[Continued from the four previous posts: “My mother was born on or about July 16, 1904 in or near what was then Vilna, Russia, to Vladimir Vainschtain and Berta Isaakovna Vainschtain (nee Shulman)….” Suddenly, when she was ten, there was no more father, no more home. Her mother took her and her five-year-old brother to Baku, where she was sent to live with a married half-sister.]

BEING JEWISH.  Berta Isaakovna’s two pre-marital conversions seem to have been concessions to the requirements of her husbands, without spiritual content. Whatever Vladimir Vainschtain might have offered had he lived, there was no religious instruction in my mother’s life. No attendance at synagogue. No ritual holiday celebrations. No prayers. No belief in God. At some point after I began to read, I learned from the books my mother purchased for me and also regularly checked out of the childrens’ library that other children said prayers at night. I thought that might be a good thing to do and asked my mother, then the source of all wisdom, how to pray. From a colored illustration of Christopher Robin at bedtime in my copy of A.A. Milne’s “When We Were Very Young,” I knew that you got down on your knees by the side of the bed, put your palms together, fingers pointing upward, lowered your head, closed your eyes, and addressed yourself to God. But who was God?

“A kind of spirit,” said my mother, trying to be helpful.

It wasn’t helpful at all. And what did you say to God?

“Whatever you like,” said my mother.

There was nothing in particular I wanted to say. I felt foolish on my knees beside the bed. And it was much warmer, and more comforting, under the covers. I soon gave up the experiment.

The papers with which she left Baku in 1922 declared my mother to be “Juive.” She regarded this classification of herself as being a mark of Cain, singling her out for bad luck and unfair treatment, and certainly nothing to advertise. It brought her no spiritual solace, no community, no source of help in troubled times. Irrespective of what she said to me about God and prayers when I asked her, she always believed in surviving on your own, no matter how difficult the problem or situation. No recourse to higher powers. “We’ll get by somehow,” she would say. With a sigh.

IMG_0556LISA.  Her cousin Lisa arrived in my mother’s life shortly after the separation from her own mother. She must have been Berta Isaakovna’s niece, as she seems not to have been connected to the married half-sister. Always referred to by my mother as “my cousin Lisa,” she had been at what my mother called “finishing school” in Switzerland when war broke out. Somehow she managed to get back to Russia and came to live in Baku. I have the impression she stayed with or near Berta Isaakovna, at least for a while. She would have been seventeen or so when my mother, aged ten or eleven, first met her, and she made such a strong impression that I may have heard more from my mother about this idolized  — and idealized? — young woman than I ever heard about herself.

Lisa was accomplished. She spoke languages — French and German probably, as well as Russian. She could play the piano, draw and ride horses. My mother thought she was beautiful. She is not especially beautiful in the one photograph that my mother brought with her, but she does look sweet, and intelligent, and — a word my mother would have used — “refined.”  Everyone liked Lisa. She was warm, and kind, said my mother, and took an interest in everything about her. Lisa was adventurous, too. When food grew scarce in Baku during the later years of the war, she took it upon herself to feed the family. She would ride her bicycle out into the country, where she bought sacks of potatoes directly from the farmers. Burdened with the potatoes, she would then manage to hitch a ride back with the soldiers on the troop trains heading into Baku. (Did they also hoist her bicycle on board?)

Listening to all this in the kitchen when I was thirteen and fourteen, usually when my mother was ironing and had time and some inclination to answer questions, I had mixed feelings about her cousin Lisa. I wanted to have what she had had, as perhaps my mother had also wanted it — finishing school, languages, horseback riding, charisma, sense of ease in the world. Lisa even had a romantic older brother, who had converted — ah, those convenient conversions in the Shulman family! —  and become a Cossack. He was attached to the Imperial Family, and fell in love with the Grand Duchess Tatiana, one of the Czar’s four young daughters. When his love letters to her were discovered, he had to be smuggled out of the country in a haycart!

But I also resented my mother’s admiration for Lisa. Did she love her more than she loved me? On the other hand, how could you hate someone who had evidently been so kind and affectionate to a little cousin without any real home?  Thinking about Lisa sometimes made me feel mean-spirited and selfish.  Especially when I learned that although Lisa was very attractive to men, she purposely sacrificed herself for the good of the family.  Beautiful and desirable, but living in perilous times, she sold herself to a wealthy and older Turkish businessman who had proposed to her, because he agreed to help her relatives with money in exchange for her hand in marriage.  At this point in the narrative, I would picture lovely Lisa in a white nightgown on her wedding night, lying meekly with parted legs beneath a fat and oily dark-skinned man with pock marks and garlic breath — all to save her relatives from starvation. No objective correlative supported this unappetizing picture;  my mother, who had actually seen the groom, said merely that he was “all right.”

IMG_0559Then Lisa and husband went away, to wherever he had come from, and there was in due time a little daughter whose photograph at age six or seven, with a big bow in her hair, Berta Isaakovna mailed after my mother had come to America. The daughter didn’t look “Turkish” at all.

Maybe when I grew up, we could go to Turkey and I could meet Lisa?  No, my mother told me. Lisa was dead. Of tuberculosis.

How old had she been?  Twenty-eight.

It’s possible my mother had no close woman friend during the rest of her long life in part because no one else could ever measure up to her cousin Lisa.

[To be continued….]