An American in Berlin
23 February, 2020
Careful readers of this blog, such as may be, have perhaps noticed a reduction in output over the last six months; maybe a year. This owes not so much to a lack of desire, I think, as a lack of material. There’s simply not that much newgoing on.
I go to work. I hang out with my friends. I ‘study’ Torah, meet Bartek to read Yiddish. Jam with Bibi and Ralf on Fridays; play a gig once a month.1 There’s not a whole lot else, generally speaking. Or if there is, it doesn’t scream to be written about.
I go for less walks than I used to. Part of that is the weather, at least at the moment. Or so I tell myself. But if I’m honest, I remember some very lovely winter walks in Köpenick. Really, what I think is happening, is I’ve undergone a transition. Somewhere along the line, this stopped being some grand adventure and just sorta became my life.
I didn’t notice it until I was home for a wedding last fall. At this wedding, I was chatting with a rather pretty girl. And we seemed to be getting on pretty well. So it occurred to me. We were getting to the point where I’d normally ask for her phone number. Except what would be the point? And that’s when I realized. My life is over therenow.
I wasn’t on some short term jaunt, some exciting let’s-roll-the-dice-and-see-what-happens adventure. I actually livein Germany. And even if I don’t know for how long – I could call it quits this year, when my lease is up or next year when my visa is up – it is nevertheless my current reality.
And that has robbed this experience of some of its wonder, the feeling that every day will bring something new and unexpected. Which isn’t all bad, mind you. There are advantages to this as well. I feel settled in some respects, which is nice. I have my own place, my routines, my circle of friends. I have my ‘intellectual’ pursuits and my outlet for musical expression, such as it is. But it is less adventure and more quotidian.
And it’s hard to write about the quotidian. That’s why I didn’t really keep a regular blog in the States, although that’s where I started. But when I first got here, I was writing a post every week or two. Because every week – hell, every day – was packed with new experiences; new sights, new sounds, new words, new people, new places.
It’s not like that anymore. Now, to be sure, I do have new experiences. Nice and Paris for the holidays. Leipzig for Annett’s birthday last month. Our first gig, also last month. A new apartment, and with it, a new neighborhood. But the new things are fewer and farther between.
Even the job has grown repetitive. Yes, occasionally I get new questions. I try to look at things in new ways. But really, it’s the people who are new. I mostly just keep on doing the same shtick.
But maybe I’m also dealing with a bit of writer’s block. I struggle with creative writing these days. Time was, I used to write stories. Good stories, I like to think. Fantasies, fairy tales, Star Wars send-ups. Now, the muse seems to have abandoned me. I have no ideas.
Back in the day, Charlotte would say, “Tell me a story.” And I’d just make something up, on the spot. She used to wonder at my ability to do that, if wonderis not too strong a word. Now I can think of nothing. And there’s nobody here who asks me for a story.
Does that mean my time here has run its course? I don’t know. I’m settled. But also, I kinda like being settled. At least some of the time. I’ll be 39 next month. Do I really want to move to another country and start all over again from zero? To go somewhere where I don’t know a single soul? It would certainly re-introduce the wonder, the excitement. But it would bring with it upheaval, uncertainty, insecurity. There are days where I hear the siren song. But mostly, I don’t feel up to it.
I’m not sure that I would say that things are often great here. Things are great, but rarely. Things are often good, though, and that ain’t nothing. Among the myriad goods – and myriad, which in Greek literally means 10,000, is the right word here – among the myriad goods, there is but one thing missing. And if that should be found…
Books. Books are good. I recently finished Poe’s Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym, which I gather is his only serious ‘novel.’ It is a novel, I don’t know why I put that in quotes. It’s not something I would normally have chosen, but for two tie-ins. Lovecraft tied his mythology into this story, which I only discovered by accident, when I read At the Mountains of Madness. And Le Sphinx des Glaces, by my boy JV, is quite literally a sequel to Poe’s tome, in every sense of the word.
It’s really for the latter that I read the Poe; so I could read the Verne afterwards. Well, the Poe was fine. Better than fine. In fact, you see why Verne chose to write a sequel to it. It really reads like a JV adventure, but tinged with Poe’s trademark darkness and mystery. I wouldn’t recommend it to everybody, but if you like Verne and you like Poe, it’s worth it.
The real story here is, of course, the Verne; which I’m not quite halfway through at the moment. And I just love Jules Verne; you all know that. But having read over a dozen of his books by now, it’s more than just the stories that I love. It’s his style too. It’s familiar, it’s easy, it’s comfortable. It’s like sitting down with an old friend.
Strangely, perhaps, I find that I enjoy the beginnings of his stories more than the ends. Because, with him, the mystery comes up front. When he sets you up, when he introduces the characters, lays out the first steps of the adventure. I say the beginning is where the mystery comes, because if I have one knock on JV, it’s that there’s always a happy ending. Even if you don’t know the details of how things will turn out, you know it’s not gonna be Hamlet, with Fortinbras surveying a field of corpses.
Which, for me, is a shame. Because JV’s at his best when he’s working dark. And based on what I know of the man, and what comes through in his stories, I get the feeling that he was dark and cynical by nature. If I understand correctly, it was his editor who pushed him to these happy endings. Well, that’s not always so fun.
And maybe I’m working too hard to draw a parallel here. But his stories are kind of like my time here. In the beginning, it’s new a cast of characters, new places, new mysteries to be solved. But as things progress, the characters become familiar, mysteries get resolved, things get comfortable.
One thing I like about this book – Le Sphinx des Glaces – is that it’s told in the first person, which is usually not the case with JV. What I like about this is, it it allows the narration a more cynical tack,2 because it’s the characterwho is cynical, not the author. Ostensibly.
One feature of JV stories is the attention to detail, the effort to get the science right. You appreciate this, but you don’t always love it. I’ll give an example. In this story, they are currently traipsing around the Antarctic circle. And so we get the exact latitudes and longitudes of various islands, their geographical features, their flora and fauna. It can be a bit of a slog at times. And even if I were reading this in English, I wouldn’t know half the birds or plants he’s talking about.
But it’s important to him, and like I said, you appreciate the effort and attention to detail. But it got me thinking. He’s writing in a time where most people don’t have the opportunity to travel the world. There are no airplanes. There are no David Attenborough-narrated HD documentaries. There aren’t even color photographs.
So you couldn’t see these places, much less visit them. How exciting must that have been for the contemporary reader, how transportative? That’s a feeling which I think the modern reader must be entirely incapable of recapturing.
In any case, I’m enjoying the hell out of it, encyclopaedic descriptions notwithstanding. And although I’m not quite halfway through, I have the feeling that this is one of the better ones. Or, at least, accords better with my own tastes.
Also, the book is dedicated to mes amis d’Amérique– my American friends. That’s pretty fucking cool. Because even though the man’s been dead for well over a hundred years, I feel like he’s including mein that group. He wrote this for me. I’m one of Jules Verne’s American friends!
The Yiddish story I just finished with Bartek was a beast in every sense of the words. The language itself was a real challenge. Much harder than the Shalom Aleichem or Itzik Manger we’d previously read. But more than that, it was very powerful; moving, tragic. It’s called איו א קארנעוואל נאכט – On a Carnival Night, by Shalom Ash.
The first three chapters take place in Rome, probably during the late 1800’s (it’s not specified),and tell of the humiliation suffered by the Jews of the Roman Ghetto during Carnival. It’s heartbreaking. These women are weaving a tapestry to be hung on the Arch of Titus during the festivities. And the Italian overseer comes and accuses them of using not their best material, of trying to cheat the Romans. And so each woman goes to her room and digs out her wedding dress, using them as the material for the tapestry.
The next chapter details how eight old Jewish men were made to run, almost naked, through the streets, chased by Romans on horseback, while the citizenry laughs them on from the sidelines. At the finish line is the Pope, laughing along with everybody else.
In the next chapter, Jesus comes down from the cross and finds the (Jewish) Messiah, chained to a wall. Whereupon does he ask, at length, how people could do such things in his name. But he Messiah is silent. In the end, Jesus sits down beside the Messiah, and he too is silent.
In the final chapter, we leave Rome behind and are transported to the Ukrainian shtetlof Troyanav. This place is neither random nor fictional. It was chosen because it would have been on the mind of Ash’s readers at the time. In 1905 (the story is written in 1909), the Jews of another shtetl received word of an impending pogrom. Five young Jews left for another town, there to join some kind of self-defense league.
On the way, the stopped in Troyanav. There, the Ukrainians got word of what the five young men were trying to do. They ordered the Jews of Troyanav to turn over the five or else face a pogrom of their own. Tragically, they were turned over and promptly executed. Ash takes it for granted that the reader would know all this.
Bartek and I did not know this however, and struggled for quite a while to make sense of the narrative. Until, finally, Bartek found the above story buried in the pages of some ancient book, preserved online by The Mighty Frenemy, Google.
In any case, the final chapter of the story tells how the matriarch Rachel comes from her grave on the road to Bethlehem to solemnly weave a death shroud for the five. She weaves it from torn up ספרי טורות (Torah scrolls), from torn up טליתים (prayer shawls), from torn up פרוכת׳ער (the curtains which hang before the ארון קדש, the most holy space in a synagogue, the closet where the Torah scrolls are kept).
She is then joined by Miriam (i.e. Mary, the mother of Jesus). And Miriam wants only to help her weave the death shrouds, because her son too was murdered. And she could have been happy at the time of his death, because he was a קרבן, an offering, a sacrifice. He was murdered, yes, but he died for the sins of man. And that is a death worth dying. Only, look what his followers have done in his name. This she cannot bear. And so she wants to help Rachel, her “mother,”3 weave her death shrouds. This they do, and the story ends with them laying the death shrouds over the corpses of the five.
The story was quite controversial at the time. In 1905, with pogroms still very much a real and current thing, Jews had little sympathy for Jesus, Mister נישט געשטויגען נישט געפלויגען.4 In a way, it was very head of its time. After all, today, most Jews are comfortable saying things like, “Jesus himself wasn’t a bad guy.” Or “Jesus’ teachings were on point, it’s the people who twist his teachings into an excuse for war or murder who are the problem.” In that way, it’s startlingly modern. But as I say, at the time, it caused quite a stir.
Anyway, reading it was extremely challenging; therefore extremely rewarding. And as with previous texts, neither of us could have done this on our own. We each solved problems for the other, so that by the end, we (think we) understood nearly everything.
But the process was so much fun too. We’d get on skype, and spend three or for hours getting though just two or three pages. Grammatical discussions were the easy part. Quasi-Talmudic debates on the meaningof various passages were invigorating. Add to this, tangents on Slavic linguistics, English idioms, modern Hebrew and Arabic usages, connotations of certain vocabulary with respect to their use in the Torah. It’s only the two of us, but it’s the sort of hifalutin “intellectual” reading group a dilettante like me dreams of having.
Next we’re going to tackle something more personal. At first, I wasn’t sure Bartek would be interested in it, since it’s not properly “literature.” But when I told him about, he was quite excited. Exactly the kind of thing he loves, he said. Well, fantastic. Because I should be very glad of his help, when it comes to this particular text.
So, one line of my family – the line that goes back through my Uncle Art, עליב השלום– comes from a small city in Lithuania, name Oshmoneh. Now, our family, ברוך חשם, came to America well before the war. I’m lucky to be able to say, I have no close relations who perished in the holocaust.
All the same, the Jews of Oshmoneh suffered the same fate as so many others in Europe. The Jewish community of Oshmoneh was annihilated during the war. But after the war, the survivors and expats had a book made. And this book is history of the Jewish community of that city. What it was like before the war and what happened there during the war. And even though I know of no direct relations from that place, have never been there, just knowing that that’s where we’re from, it makes this book very special, very personal. I don’t know how many copies of this book exist. But because it was made by those people for those people, the number can’t be a big one.
Funny thing, I never knew about this book. I suspect nobody in our family did. It was found amongst Art’s things after he died.5 I suppose not everybody has a deep interest in family history. But for those who do, this book is surely an אוצר, a treasure. Or it would be, if anybody could read it. See, the book is written in two languages: Yiddish and Modern Hebrew. I don’t believe anybody alive today in my family is fluent in either of these languages. My ability with Yiddish, such as it is, probably comes closest.
So this is the thing I’m going to read next with Bartek. And honestly, I couldn’t be happier at his genuine interest. I mean, I would soon be making an effort to read this anyway. But already I’ve seen how many of my mistakes he catches. Already I’ve seen the insights he can bring, insights which fly right past me when I’m reading alone. So yeah, I’m kinda over the moon that we’re going to tackle this text together. Or, at least, parts of it. I mean, the book is fucking huge. But anything we can do will be a win.
In any case, I’ve se the goal for myself of translating it into English. Not for me, but for the family. Because I want to believe I’m not the only one who’s interested in its contents. And even if I should be the only one currently interested, I have to hope that one of the young cousins will grow up to be interested. And if not them, then some child yet unborn. Whatever the case, there’s a story worth telling in there. And if I can get that into English – imperfect as it might be – well, that will be an achievement.
Lastly, on books. The great Roger Kahn has just died. Kahn, a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn, covered the Jackie Robinson Dodgers in 1951, 1952 for the long defunct Herald Tribune. His greatest claim to fame, among many, though, is his beloved Boys of Summer. This I’m now re-reading for at least the third time.
And what a beautiful book it is. I mean, the man was the poet fucking laureate of baseball. When I say it’s a beautiful book, it’s not hyperbole. Yes, he’s a master of the English language; it’s poetry in prose. But it’s a book about fathers and sons, a book about youth, about becoming a man, about leaving youth behind, the cold realities of adulthood, aging.
And the backdrop to all of this: perhaps the most wondrous, the most beloved of any baseball team of any time, Dem Bums, The Brooklyn Dodgers. A team of players we know by first names and nicknames. Jackie, Pee Wee, Skoonj, Campy, Shotgun Shuba, Preacher Roe, Oisk. The magical mystical glove of Billy Cox. Hell, even the bad guys are known by their nicknames: Sal ‘The Barber,’ Leo ‘The Lip.’ You don’t have to be a baseball fan to love – not like, love– this book.
Reading it has got me in a Dodger mood. I found two Dodger games on Youtube, called by the great Red Barber. You read stories about Red Barber. People talk about him like he was the greatest mouth to ever sit behind a mic in the history of baseball. These days, that accolade is more likely attributed to Vin Scully. Scully is famous for calling Dodger games after they moved to LA.6 But Scully is a New Yorker too, and his career started in Brooklyn. It was Red Barber who taught him the craft. For a short time, they called Dodger games together. The torch was passed.
Anyway, I found two Dodger games on YouTube, with the Ol’ Redhead on the mic. And the beauty of them is, they’re nothing games. Spring games. Two random games, each from a different season, each a season of 154 such games. And that’s what makes them special. It’s not the World Series. They’re just any old game, what any Brooklyn fan would have heard on the radio, one sunny afternoon in the early 1950’s. There’s magic in that.
You know those questions. The ones about, if you could have dinner with any three people, living or dead, who would you choose? Or, if you could go anywhere at anytime in the history of the world, where would you go?
The former question is not relevant here, but I’ll answer it anyway. I’m not inviting Jesus to dinner, or Julius Caesar. No, sir. Just my dad, my grandpa and Bubbi. The men, to talk with. About anything. To listento them talk. Bubbi? You can have Jesus, if you like. I’d give anything צו האלטן א שמועז מיט דער באבע, to just chat in Yiddish with my great grandmother.
But the relevant question, where and when would you go? That’s easy. New York, the early fifties, summer. A Dodgers-Giants game at Ebbets field in the afternoon and a game at Yankee stadium at night. Willie, Mickey and the Duke. Yogi and Campy. Pee Wee and The Scooter. The Chairmen of the Board. Jackie fucking Robinson. And if pocket transistor radios were a thing – and I don’t know if they were yet – but I’d have one of those with me. Just so I could hear Red Barber in the afternoon and Mel Allen at night. I mean, it’s the only possible answer to such a question.
Well, I suppose that’s enough for now. The Islanders are going through a bit of a rough patch at the mo, although they won tonight. Still though, the hockey is exciting right now. And boy, do I love hockey. I don’t have words for how much I miss playing. But I’ve got enough to keep me busy here. And so what if things aren’t greatevery day? Most things are goodmost days. And that ain’t nuthin’…
- This month will be our second. Hmm, you know, I should probably write about the first… [↩]
- Pun intended. It is a sea-faring adventure, after all. [↩]
- In a non-literal sense, Rachel isthe mother of Mary. The latter is directly descended from the former. Both are members of the Davidic line, from whence we are taught meshiachwill arise. Christians, obviously, believe Jesus wasthe messiah. We are still waiting. But the genealogy checks out. [↩]
- Nisht geshtoygen, nisht gefloygen. Not arisen, not flown (to heaven). This is how Jesus is (or was) often referred to in Yiddish. [↩]
- Actually, I found an inscription in the back cover from my great aunt Pearl, Art’s sister. Written in 1969, it’s to her father. So knowledge of the book certainly went backwards from Art’s generation, but seemingly not forward. Until now, that is. [↩]
- Hashtag crime of the century. [↩]