Az men shert di shepsn, freyen zikh di tsign (When one beats the dog, a lion is also afraid) --- A Yiddish proverb
I first met Meyer Goldbarb when I thought he was already dead – already resting without our fathers of blessed memory. This was an auspicious time to disinter this faded figure of Yiddish Letter’s gilded past.
I had just traded writing in Yiddish for English. With an every dwindling audience of readers, continuity with my past came out the other end as an odd sort of disruption, like bending over to pick up a familiar object, only to herniate an otherwise healthy disk.
There was no future in Yiddish, just like there is no future in death. But when I saw Meyer Goldbarb nibbling joylessly on a piece of kreplach, I realized that perhaps I had thrown the shroud over the Mother Tongue when it still had a feint, if not irregular pulse.
Truth known, it had become a charade played all along well before then. I would write a story in Yiddish, and if I wanted the readership every fiber of my being craved, I translated it into English. An editor would hold the copy in his hand, and say “What's this translated from the Yiddish business at the end?” Then I would explain. And that explanatory process was beginning to take the sweet laurels of creation and turn them a late autumnal brown.
So, in caucus with my mono-lingual wife, and after a lengthy dialogue with the Yiddish and English portions of my brain, I said kaddish for Yiddish. I laid a spade full of dirt on its coffin and placed two pebbles on its tombstone.
Then, when I had crossed the Rubicon and into the land of American English, a venerable society of ancient dowagers and high priests of Yiddish fiction invited me to read one of my short stories in a well padded apartment on the Upper West Side. At twenty-seven, I was writing in an elderly language, the tongue of millions of ghosts, of ash and faded remembrance in Poland, the Ukraine, Lithuania. I was to them what breath is to life: the hope of one more inhalation; the yearning for one more day of suspiration.
So I traveled uptown by subway to find a low building dwarfed by rising high rises of glass and steel. All along the street, the curtain call of demographic change was being wildly demanded. Dilapidated brick apartments were being torn down with all the finesse New York City contractors could muster, which was to say none at all. It was as if a race of giants were displacing a colony of dwarfs. And all the subsidiary institutions, the cafeterias and kosher delis were going the way of the Dodo bird… gone, to be replaced by more rigorous, invasive cafes and bistros.
The old lady who greeted me had a strong Yiddish Polish accent and had arranged the living room furniture to face the grimy picture window which gazed down wearily on the smeared spectacle of West 130rd Street and Broadway. There was an urn of coffee on a table and a tray of kreplach to its side, the bitter arranged next to the sweet, as if to rectify some cosmic imbalance in microcosm.
I was introduced to the small crowd, a haze of blue hair and heavy perfume, bangles on wrists and loops on ears. All were well over sixty, most topping off seventy, many rounding the corner to ninety and as I began to read my story, I caught a glimpse of the only man in the room, and I thought, is that Mendel Goldfarb? I deliberated… I remembered reading an obituary in a Yiddish daily, but I did not have time to chase down the thread of recollection. I had Yiddish fiction to read.