Thursday, June 09, 2016

Canadian Jewish News writes about Yiddish for Pirates



I'm delighted by this review in the Canadian Jewish News. Apparently they believe I must have been paying attention during all those interminable cheder (Hebrew school) lessons. But, really, it is quite moving to have such a review in such a place.

I was thinking tonight about how they would say that the American composer Charles Ives wrote the music that his father would have written, that his music came out of a love and concern for the kinds of things that he saw mattered to his father, filtered (I think) through a kind of nostalgia and affection.

I would say that some significant part of my novel comes from my perception of what mattered to my maternal grandparents.  My grandfather's interest in Jewish learning, in the mystery and value of books, language and knowledge for itself, and a kind of intellectual Yiddishkeit which made me consider that each corner and crook of the world is filled with story, with knowledge, with thought, with words, and with an opinion. He also had an interest in bon mots (frequently his own) and Jewish jokes (frequently his own.) There was a sense that through knowledge the world was larger and had roots.

He was also was a polyglot. (Man, he was hard to clean up after -- ask my grandmother.) He was not a religious man, but was fascinated by religious texts and knew Hebrew, Afrikaans, English, Yiddish, French, Russian, some German, and bits of other languages. I remember arriving one night late and seeing him have about five different bibles open in front of him, comparing the texts. My grandfather and I would go to the local library once a week when I was between ten and thirteen. I remember reading about madrigals and haiku while he read the Israeli newspapers in English and Hebrew.

A characteristic memory of my grandmother. She would be sitting in her green chair or lying on her bed with a book (library-wrapped by her in plastic)—mostly frequently a contemporary or classic literary novel—reading with a dictionary beside her. She was a fastidious reader, always careful to check on unfamiliar words or usages. She also told stories, mostly during those times when my grandfather wasn't there to interrupt or eclipse her. Those quieter times between things. There wasn't the sense of having an audience (in both meanings of the word) that there was with my grandfather or of tagging along on a particular project or enthusiasm that he'd being seized with. She'd talk while baking or while I helped her walk from a chair to the dinner table (which, as her arthritis took told of her bones, could take enough time for a story or anecdote.)

When they moved to Canada, I remember one of the first things they did in their new house was to knock down the wall between two room so that they could install "their library,"—their large book collection with its dark wood shelves and Persian rugs. Each book was carefully catalogued by my grandmother and I would look through the various dictionaries, encylopedias (Jewish, historical and philosophical), the older editions, the collections of many or all the books by a single author gathered together on the shelf (I imagined where my books would go, in their place on the "B" shelf) and the bookcases of Hebrew and Yiddish books, obscure to me, but their unintelligible whispering and humming was a mysterious and affective ghost for me.

All of my grandparents were migrants, immigrants, wandering a varied diaspora of Jews, living in a diaspora of memory. They moved from Lithuania and the Ukraine where they were born to South Africa, where my parents were born, and eventually to Canada, where I was born. In my novel, the boy who eventually becomes a pirate captain, Moishe, is born in Lithuania, travels to Spain and then eventually finds himself in the Caribbean. There is this sense of travelling, of following story, of following the horizon. Following the horizon looking for home, looking for possibility. Often Jews feel like they are a diaspora of themselves, living in the past and in the future, but with a complicated feeling about the present. And so, they live in language, a place that is there and not there. Its palpable sensory reality is present, is here, but yet always refers to something else. A sign of relief, of regret, of hope, expectation, of witness.

I remember when my first son was born, my grandfather spoke to me about how he had known his grandfather and now he had met his great-grandson. That's six generations, he said. And he was in the middle of the past and the future.

But here I am at 3 a.m. in the Calgary airport writing to the sound of the cleaners' vacuums as I nod off with exhaustion. I, too, am between one place and the other. Between being awake and asleep. Between Hamilton, Ontario and Victoria, B.C. Between one flight and the next. Between sense and reverie. Beginning and ending. Guess I'd better find a comfy and quiet bank of airport chairs to steal a quick shloff before it is time for my flight in a few hours, before it is time for me, too, to fly off toward the horizon.

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