An American in Berlin
25 September, 2023
So Apparently my thing now is, starting blogue posts, letting them sit for weeks and then coming back to them when they’re horribly out of date before finally publishing, all while adding little updates along the way. Most of the following was written sometime around the end of August. Oh, and happy new year btw.
So Sunday before last was quite the interesting day. See, I went to a baseball game with American Sam and Rabbi Jeremy. Wait, what? Yeah, you read that right. An actual, honest to gods baseball game. Right here in Berlin.
Allow me to explain. At some point during the Kollel, possibly at the Shabbaton, I got to talking with this American fella named Sam (hence, American Sam). He’s an actor/director from California. On paper, just the sort of person I came here to avoid. Except he’s a lovely guy and we share a similar sense of humor. Plus, you know, Jew-bonding. Anyway, we got to talking and somehow baseball came up. He’s not a huge fan, but he played Little League growing up and has been to his fair of Giants games.
Side note: He’s like, “I’ve been to my share of Giants games.” And me, without even thinking, was like, “The baseball Giants?” As if he even knew or cared about the football Giants; nevermind the fact we were talking specifically about baseball. Even though they left after the 1957 season, the NY papers continue to write about the “football Giants” like there’s still a distinction to be made. Am I saying that I, along with a host of Boomer sports writers, am still salty about California stealing not one but two of our baseball teams? I’m not not saying that. Anyway, he looks at me curiously: “Um, yes, the baseball Giants.”
So we’re talking about baseball and he mentions that there’s a team that plays right here at Tempelhoferfeld. Well now isn’t that interesting. So we agreed to go the next game, which would be on August 27th. (Apparently, they take off in the middle of the summer for summer vacation. Yes, that’s right. The baseball league literally takes a vacation during baseball season. This country, I tellya).
Well, this conversation was like two months ago already. Naturally, I forgot all about it until Thursday or Friday when American Sam texts me. “Still up for the ballgame on Sunday?” Huh? That’s this Sunday? Not like I had plans. “Sure man, let’s do it!”
Then, when it came to organizing the plans, he created a Whatsapp group. Which surprised me, insofar as I didn’t know anybody else was coming. But it seems he invited Rabbi Jeremy. Which was so much more appropriate than I even knew, which I’ll get to. But even at the time, it made sense. Jeremy is from NJ, likes baseball and is for reasons not worth getting into, somehow a Cleveland fan. Cleveland? Whatever, at least it’s not the Sox.
Sam got there in time for first pitch. I was a couple of minutes late, so the visiting team already had a man on first by the time I showed up, top of the 1st. Sparse crowd, just a handful of scattered people on the bleachers, none of them near us. So American Sam is giving me the rundown. The home team – our team, apparently – are the Berlin Skylarks. Seems they used to be the Berlin Braves, but changed their name for obvious reasons. As to Skylarks, apparently those are the birds that nest on the protected grounds of THF. So I thought that was actually kinda nifty. (Nifty? What year is this?)
Next, he tells me the ballfield was built by American soldiers after the war. Which tracks. What made less sense was the fact that, while there was an oldschool electronic scoreboard just beyond the leftfield fence, it wasn’t working. Or wasn’t being used. Either way, that seemed like a loss. If you’re not keeping a scorecard, it’s harder than you think to keep track of outs and innings, hell even the score, without a scoreboard.
From there, AS proceeds to tell me that our Skylarks are the cream of the league. First place now, and – I think? – won the championship last year. Which, honestly, was kinda hard to believe. The level of pay was, shall we say, uninspiring. Beyond the actual errors, of which there were many, they weren’t playing super heads-up ball. Throwing to the wrong bag, not taking the extra base when they could have, running themselves into outs when they shouldn’t have. That sorta thing. By the time Jeremy showed up, they were already down a few, and most of the runs against were unearned.
Now the other team, also from Berlin, were the Wizards. Which, to me, that’s just baffling. Like, if you’re a German team, why on earth would you choose an English name that starts with a ‘W’? Um, Let’s go Vizrds!? You see what I’m saying. They weren’t great either, but they seemed a bit sharper in the field. Plus their pitcher was wearing high socks and had a mustache, so he had the added virtue of actually looking like a ballplayer.
Anyway, it’s just me and Sam for the first three innings or so. So we’re chilling on the bleachers, kibbitzing, talking about kosher delis, baseball, random Jewish shit and who knows what else. We were having a very chill and enjoyable time of things. I got us beers between innings. The sky was cloudy which meant it was pleasantly cool. Just a great way to spend a Sunday.
And then Rabbi Jeremy shows up and omg you guys. At Hillel, he’s this super friendly, warm, kind-hearted guy. Very professional, always trying to make everybody feel welcome and all that. This was not the guy who showed up to the ballgame. I’m telling you, the Jersey boy came right out. Man, was he ever loud.
But, I hasten to add, in the best of ways. There was no trash talk. He wasn’t getting on the other team. It was all root, root, root for the home team. He was so into it. Which got me more into it.
And that’s when I learned RJ played some pretty serious high school ball. By his own account, he wasn’t much of a runner or a fielder, didn’t have a great arm. But he says he could really hit back in the day. Now, of course I can’t vouch for that. But it was immediately clear that he knew the game. He brought a player’s eye to the proceedings. Just all the details he was catching.
Now me, I never really played. My career pretty much ended at T-ball. So I don’t bring that level of expertise to the game. But I’ve watched hundreds of games, listened to hundreds more on the radio. One of my best friends in college played baseball and he taught me even more. (We actually played on a softball team together. I was the pitcher because I was completely useless at literally every other position. We won the championship though, so I couldn’t have been that bad).
So RJ, in between cheering, is making comments and observations to me. At first, I couldn’t tell if he just needed to tell these things to literally anybody and I happened to be sitting next to him, or if he had a feeling that I’d understand what he was saying. But I did understand. Mostly, I was just agreeing though. But I got his attention once or twice.
At one point, with two strikes, our pitcher threw a high one, way up. And I’m like, “It’s alright. Just expanding the zone.” I mean, I don’t think he was intentionally throwing high to expand the zone, he didn’t seem to have that level of control. But strategically, that’s what a pro pitcher might have done in that spot. So I say that, and he turns and gives me a look like, “Oh shit, you actually know what you’re talking about!”
The other time, after a pitching change, the Wizards had a lefty on the mound, the Skylarks a man on first. The southpaw executes a pretty decent pickoff move, although the runner got back in time. So I’m like, “Nice lefty pickoff move right there.” And RJ’s like, “Yeah, that was actually pretty good.” And I’m like, “Little Andy Pettitte action.” And he looks at me with big eyes, like, “Damn dude, I was not expecting that!”
At one point, this little oldy lady happens by and sits down in front of us on the bleachers. Classic German, this woman didn’t even know what game she was looking at. So we had to explain that it was baseball and also that it’s an American game. All the while, RJ is doing his Jersey fan thing. Then, at one point, the lady turns around and looks at him, and she’s like, “Honestly, you’re the real attraction here.” She wasn’t wrong.
After a while, she leaves. But then this young father sits down next to us with a little baby girl on his lap and a Milwaukee Brewers cap on his head. Which, that’s not something you see every day over here. The Brewers hat I mean. Anyway, RJ is doing his thing, cheering loudly, encouraging the players and all that. And the little baby girl, she just looks at him with her giant blue baby eyes, totally bewildered. She didn’t cry, didn’t seem bothered. Just this look of, “What in the world I am I witnessing? Never in all my months on this earth have I seen the like of this.” I paraphrase.
So RJ, with two little girls of his own at home, looks at her and explains in German that he’s Der Schreier, the shouter. That one has to yell at a ballgame. Which only confused the kid even more, I’m sure. But the dad was like, “Hey man, you do you. This is great.” By this time, we the bleachers were pretty well filled. Only then did we notice that everybody around us was wearing Wizards gear. Which, this being Europe, meant we were in the wrong section. Apparently the home bleachers were behind the plate. But nobody seemed to mind the noise we were making. So we stayed put, agreeing that if we go to another game, we’ll sit behind the plate with the home fans.
Incidentally, I asked this German dude how he wound up having a Brewers hat. And his answer was basically, “Ja, well, Brewers. I mean, it’s pretty perfect for a German.” Hard to argue with that logic.
Anyway, the Larks managed to tie it up somehow. I say ‘somehow.’ But honestly, I’m pretty sure Jeremy’s antics put a much needed jolt into them. They picked up their play once he started cheering and rooting. It was supposed to be a seven inning affair, but it was all tied up after seven, so on we went into extra innings. Every time the Wizards would score, the Larks would tack on the same number of runs in the bottom of the frame. In the end, it wound up going 9 or 10. Finally, the Larks scratched across the winning run.
It was a lot fun, lemme tellya. Like, yes, the quality of play was nothing special. But it was nice just to be at a ballgame. And honestly, the way baseball is supposed to be. Nothing fancy, no $12 beers, no pretentious food (Sam got brats with mustard for me and him; not Kosher, so RJ didn’t partake), no plush seats. No advertisements, no hundreds of millions of dollars. Just green grass and baseball. And with two actual Americans who appreciate the game. Just fantastic.
We brought gloves so we could have a bit of a catch afterwards. Not long, just ten or fifteen minutes. As we walked away from the field to find a patch of grass, several of the Skylarks came over to Jeremy and thanked him for his support. Which was kinda cool and also a bit funny.
Less funny was the game of catch. Holy fuck, I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. I mean, look, I never had a great arm. But I used to be able to have a solid game of catch. Used to be, if you held up your glove, I could hit it most of the time. But Sunday? Yeesh. You’d think I’d never picked up a baseball before in my life. I don’t know what the hell was wrong with me. I was either too short or else just throwing way off to the right. It was honestly embarrassing. I don’t even know how to diagnose what I was doing wrong. The worst part is, how do you even practice? You kinda can’t alone. I mean, unless I want to buy a tennis ball and start winging it down my hallway. Actually, though? Maybe I should. I mean, this was bad, you guys. Not that it wasn’t fun. It was. But yikes. I gotta get my arm right.
We left after that. Me and Jeremy walked most of the way home together; he also lives in the neighborhood. We talked some Hillel, some other random stuff. And then, somehow, started talking about Mike and the Mad Dog. And he’s like, “This is kinda amazing. I can’t believe I’m talking about Mike and the Mad Dog in Berlin.” And I’m like, “Yeah, dude, I am here for this.” Nice way to end the day.
So that was Sunday. I don’t know how many games are left in the season, but hopefully we can get to one or two more. That would be nice.
Moving on. When we were in Bamberg, I stopped into this excellent used book store. They had a Classics shelf in the back, of which two whole rows were actual Greek texts. I picked out two books, which my mom insisted on paying for (thanks, Ma!). One was a volume of Pindar poetry which I’ve yet to crack The other was a volume of Xenophon (a historian) containing several of his shorter works, amongst which his version of Socrates’ Apology, or his ‘defense’ at his trial. Plato also wrote an account of this, and his version is the more famous. I read the Plato version years ago on my own, sometime after grad school.
Anyway, the Xenophon version is pretty short, clocking in at just nine pages. So I figured this would be a good little test to see if my Greek really has improved with all the reading I’ve been doing lately. And it’s a pretty good test in that regard. On the one hand, it’s ‘real’ Greek, by which I mean classical Athenian prose. Harder than Homer (if you’ve been reading Homer for the better part of 15 years, as I have) and a far sight more complex than the Dr. Seuss Greek of the NT. At the same time, it’s not exactly Final Boss level shit.
In fact, traditionally, Xenophon was the first ‘real’ author students of Greek would be introduced to upon completing their introductory level courses. (In my case, it was – thankfully – Herodotus; so I’ve never ready any Xenophon before). Reason being, he’s considered a serious writer, a fine example of the afore mentioned classical Athenian prose, but also not over the top hard like my boy Thucydides. All to say, Big X seemed like a good way to check my pulse, and this text in particular an interesting and not too long one.
I started a couple of days ago. And off the bat, it was like, “Uh-oh, this is harder than I thought.” Now some of that, to be sure, is just the New Author Effect I wrote about recently. There’s always an adjustment period as you get used to the new dude’s style and vocab. But also, it’s been ages since I’d read just straight up Attic prose.
For years, it’s been mostly Homer. Since I started reading with George two or three years ago, we’ve read the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, some Pindar and a Sophoclean tragedy. That’s three different styles with a mix of dialects, but all poetry, which is just a different ballgame. So I was a bit daunted at the outset.
But I’m happy to report that by the second day, shit started falling into place. Which isn’t to say it’s easy necessarily. This is not subway reading. I have to sit at my desk and constantly consult dictionaries as well as a rather unfaithful translation to check my work. But it’s coming faster and faster now. I’m starting to get a feel for his style and syntax. Which, ‘getting a feel for it’ is not the same as ‘getting the hang of it.’ It’s a step down, I’d say. But maybe I’ll progress from ‘feel for’ to ‘hang of’ before the end.
The hardest part is the vocab actually. Which kinda surprised me. I mean, vocab is just words. Generally, when you’re dealing with Greek, that’s the least of your problems. But in this case, it’s a real challenge. Reason being, it’s not about the words I don’t know. It’s about the words that don’t mean what I expect them to mean.
See, what’s happening is, the author is recounting Socrates’ defense speech from his trial, as I mentioned. So there’s a lot of legal vocab. The thing is, this legal vocab is not a collection of unique terms, but rather words which have specialized legal definitions as their third, fourth or fifth dictionary entries. Sometimes it’s words I know from other contexts, other times it’s words I’ve never seen but when I look at them, I think, “Ok, based on the parts of the word and what I know if Greek, it looks like it should mean this. But somehow this doesn’t seem to make sense.” So I look in the dictionary. And sure enough, the word can indeed mean what I guessed it should mean. Just, you know, not here. Here, it doesn’t mean this, it means that. Well, fuck me, I guess?
I’ll give one example, and pretend that any of you care. But you don’t, so probably just skip the next two paragraphs. Anyway, the example word: ἀνατίθημι (anatithēmi). So I start by recognizing that this is the verb τίθημι (put, place) combined with prepositional prefix ἀνα- (up, along, throughout). So logically, you start with the simplest possible meaning, something like ‘put up,’ which logically extends to something like ‘set up,’ say of a monument, for example. But this doesn’t work in the sentence. Because when you try to read it that way, you get something like, “Those setting up for the birds the power of god.” Well, you don’t need the context of the story or any knowledge of Greek to see that this is clearly gibberish.
And when your understanding yields gibberish, it means you’re missing something. Time to check the dictionary. And sure enough, ἀνατίθημι can absolutely mean ‘set up’ (a monument or whatever). But what’s this? It can also mean ‘to attribute something to somebody.’ So let’s plug that in. “Those attributing the power of god to the birds [understand ‘of omen’].” Well now, that actually makes sense. And once you have that, you can kinda see it. Your understanding of what this word can do just got a little bit broader. But that’s real work. That’s what I’m dealing with. That’s what I mean when I say it’s not subway reading.
But it’s fun. And I do feel like I’m maybe handling it better now than I would have in the past, before I started all this extra reading. I’m curious to see how I’ll feel by the end of it. I’ll report back in the next post.
[Update, early September: I finished it tonight; took me about a week and a half to get through it. I think I can say I was ‘getting the hang of it’ by the end. Mostly. Even by the end, there were a couple of spots that gave me a bit of trouble. And one – precisely one – sentence which, while I was able to get the meaning of it, I was never able to resolve grammatically to my satisfaction. This annoys me greatly. All in all though, I feel like I did pretty well with it and that all this extra reading really is paying off. Also though, Greek – proper Greek – is fucking hard, you guys].
The last thing I want to talk about is something that occurred a couple of months ago actually. In fact, I mentioned it in passing at the end of the last post. So earlier this year, I had this student, a woman from India. The first and only Indian student I’ve had over here, if I’m not mistaken. And beyond just being a very cool person, she was perhaps one of the most interesting students I’ve ever had. Interesting as a person, sure, but truly interesting as a student.
A bit about her. She was a journalist back in India. Her native language is Urdu, but she’s fluent in Hindi, the language she did journalism in. And her English was already really quite good when she joined the class. Now here’s the thing. English is widely spoken, and at a very high level at that, in India. But it’s not a version of the language I’m at all familiar with. Obviously my strength is American English. But I did a semester in London, have watched lots of British TV, have listened to countless hours of BBC news. So in broad terms, I know enough about British English to be able to comment on the differences and offer at least some possible variants on ways to express things in British English. Ditto, but less so, for Australian. But Indian English? I got bupkis.
Anyway, early on in the course, she’d be talking and she’d say something that sounded a bit off to my ear. So I’d gently correct her. Like, “It’s very clear what you mean, but it might be a bit nicer if you said it this way,” or “I think you’d more likely hear it this way from a native speaker.” That kinda thing. But then she’d say, “Oh, I see. Just, in India, that’s what we’d say.”
And after hearing that a couple of times, I decided I had no business correcting her. Instead, I’d say, “Oh interesting, okay, so that’s how you’d say that in India. And if that’s how they say it in India, than it’s absolutely valid. For you, there’s no reason to change it. Just be aware, you’d be more likely to hear it this way from an American or perhaps this way from a British person. And insofar as you’re preparing for a standardized test, you should know that the test will expect this or that for an answer. But don’t let anybody tell you that your way is ‘wrong,’ because it absolutely is not.”
I mean, that’s a long spiel, so I didn’t say it every time. Usually a shorter version. But I loved working with her because it allowed me to see a version of my own language I’d otherwise have no contact with. One of my favorite things is when, even though you’re the teacher, your students are teaching you new shit.
One quick anecdote. As I mentioned, she’s a native Urdu speaker, an Indo-European language [i.e. related to English, German, French, etc.] but with a shit-ton of Arabic loan words. Also in that class was this ethnically Turkish German dude. He’s first gen, so if I have it right, he understands Turkish quite well but isn’t native-speaker fluent. But he’s also a rather religious Muslim, so he’s got a strong working knowledge of Arabic, though I don’t know quite how far it extends.
Anyway. One day, for whatever reason, I’m telling my story about the time I got locked in a cemetery over here. And my dude is like, “Wait, sorry, what is a cemetery?” And before I can answer, homegirl jumps in and says, “Does it help if I say kabristan?” And he’s like, “Oh yeah, of course!” And then I’m like, “Oh yeah, of course! Land of the graves!” And they’re like, “How do you know that?” And I’m like, “Well, the Hebrew word for grave is keyver, so it’s pretty clear.” And the three of just looked at each other like, “Oh damn, this is lit! We just understood a word across three different languages at the same time!” And all the Germans in the class were looking at us like, “What are you people talking about?” Oh, not much. Just how awesome we are. Don’t worry about it.
Right. So not long after she finished the course, she invited me and some others over for dinner, including my dude from above. In the end, it wound being just me and this very German dude from the class. Lovely guy. Now, part of the reason for the dinner was just to be social. But part of it was also to show off their new home. Her and her husband had just bought a brand new apartment down in Alt Glienicke. And as she loves to cook, we talked a lot in class about the customized kitchen they were putting in. So as much as showing off the apartment, it was also about showing off the kitchen and her cooking.
And let me tell you, homegirl can cook. She made a lamb curry and a chicken curry and both were just delicious. And also not as hot as I expected. I forget how it came up, maybe I asked, but she said normally it would be hotter, however she wasn’t sure what we (read ‘white people’) could handle. I told her I could handle anything she could. Because I’m a man and that’s what we do. Act the fool. She offered to roast some chilis for me to add in, but I told her not to unless she was going to do the same for herself. In the end, she didn’t, but agreed that if we ever did this again, she wouldn’t pull any spice-punches. Didn’t matter though, that shit was slammin’ as-is (as-was?).
After dinner, I asked her if she wouldn’t mind showing me her spice collection. Which, does that sound like an innuendo? Nevermind. Well, we spent the next ten minutes or so standing in front of her cabinets as she pulled out one spice after another, telling me where she got it, taking the lids off so I could smell them, telling me what sort of dishes they were used in and to what effect. Some I’d heard of, many I never even knew existed. It was fascinating. Also, I’ve pretty much forgotten all of it. But I really enjoyed the hell out of it. Just so interesting. And so cool to get an inside look at a home cook’s kitchen, to learn a tiny bit about this food that I love but know so little about.
When she got done, I thanked her for sharing all that with me. And she was like, “Are you kidding? It makes me really happy that you’re interested. I love sharing this.” Or something like that. So I asked her, if we ever did this again and it wouldn’t be an inconvenience, could I maybe come early and watch her cook and just sorta learn. And she’s like, “Yeah, dude, of course!”
I don’t know if we actually will do it again. I haven’t spoken to her since then, although I’ll probably reach out soon-ish. But I know I’d love to. She’s just good people.
I mentioned they live in Alt Glienicke, which is about halfway between the SE corner of the Ring-Bahn and the airport. On top of which, it was a good 15-20m walk from the train station to their place. The other guy who came drove. So I asked him if he wouldn’t mind driving me to the station. He wound up just driving me home.
And we had a very interesting conversation. Like I said, he’s very German. But I guess his wife is from Africa, somewhere. And they’re thinking about moving to the States. So he wanted my opinion. I told him I had no idea why they’d want to. Start with health care and guns, nevermind all the other mishigas. And he’s like, “I kinda get that. But honestly, we’re tired of dealing all the racism in Germany.” And you want to go to America?? Dude, your wife is African. “Yeah, but that’s my point. She’s African. She’s not a Black American.” Oh, you poor, sweet, innocent boy. Nobody’s gonna stop to ask where she’s from before they decide to treat her a certain way. So it was an interesting, and intense, conversation.
Intense, but not heated. He’s a real interesting cat, this guy. He’s got very strong opinions and he’s not shy about expressing them. But he’s so German, he’s unfailingly civil and polite about it. Also, they’re not awful opinions. Just different than my own, in some cases. We also agreed on plenty of things. But it was honestly refreshing to have an intense conversation with someone you sometimes disagree with and walk away from it still respecting the person. To just be like, “Yeah, okay, so we don’t agree on some things. But we can debate those things like human beings.” That’s in short supply these days.
I saw Oppenheimer last week with Chris and Esma. Good flick, go see it. But I’m not here to do movie reviews. Two things from the picture. One. Oppy is at a party and he’s quoting some German philosopher to a girl. And she’s like, “You’re saying that, but I believe he actually said this.” And our boy RJO is like, “What do I know from how it goes in English. I’ve only read it in the original German.” And it was at that moment that I thought, “Wait a second, am I an insufferable asshole? Or…am I fucking awesome? I honestly can’t tell.” Leave your comments below.
Two. He brings some other girl (or possibly the same girl, who can keep track) home, and she spots a volume of Vedic texts on his bookshelf. Taking down the book, she opens it to find it’s all written in Sanskrit. And she’s like, “You can read this?” And he’s like, “Duh. I taught myself. Because who wouldn’t?” And she’s like, “Tell me what it says.” Also, she made him tell her what it said while she was banging him. Which, no kink-shaming here. And it was at that moment that I thought, “Wait a second, should I have studied Sanskrit?”
No, but really. So I’m reading Greek with George a few nights ago. And Sanskrit came up. As it does. And I’m like, “You know, Sanskrit has never been higher than number five on my list of languages I want to learn before I die. But then I was watching Oppenheimer. And look, I get that he’s like a genius and shit. And clearly I’ll never understand the physics. But I kinda feel like, if this asshole can teach himself Sanskrit on the side, I should be able to do it.” And George is like, “Oh yeah, no hope on the physics. But fucking Sanskrit? Of course you can.” Pause. He continues. “Wait a second, are we insufferable assholes? Or…are we fucking awesome. I honestly can’t tell.” Leave your comments below.
Quick follow-up on Greek. So I’d emailed Phil to ask if he had any thoughts or insights on the Xenophon. Reason being, he specializes in Plato. And if I’m not mistaken, he used to teach Plato’s Apology of Socrates to his second year students; maybe he still does, for all I know. He didn’t with us though. He’s the one who did Herodotus with us, bc our first year teacher ended the year by having us read the very beginning of that author’s History. Anyway, I figured, what the hell? Maybe Phil has something to say here.
Well, for a few days I didn’t get a response. Then, the other day, he writes back. Just a couple of short thoughts in the body of the email. But then, he also attached three articles on the subject, two of them like 40 pages long. Which, just, how fucking cool is that? I started reading the first one that night over dinner.
And can I tell you? It felt so good to be reading academic lit again. And on Greek too. Here and there I’ve read a couple of French articles dealing with how the Hebrew Bible interacted with the Greek world, all of which were quite interesting. But that stuff was interdisciplinary at best, or else more geared towards, what should I call it, religious studies? This though, this was proper Classics shit. The kinda garbage I hold a (useless fucking) Master’s in. So yeah, I’m enjoying reading this bullshit very much.
Beyond that, George and I finally finished working through his and Phil’s Frogs and Mice stuff. What a great project. To (once again) borrow from my old boss, “I enjoyed myself immensely.” He said Phil was very pleased with our work and that I’ll get a big thank you in the acknowledgements. So that, along with the couple of Roman inscriptions I edited in grad school, will likely be the only published evidence of my existence on this earth. Which hey, not bad for a fucking dilettante, right?
We – George and me – have agreed that we’ll read the Antigone next. I’ll have more to say on that once we get going. For now, I’m just waiting for my book to arrive. I ordered it over a week ago, but it’s coming from England, so who knows how long that will take. #thanksbrexit Very much looking forward to that though. In the meantime, we’re just reading Homer. Which is never the wrong move.
[Update: My book arrived and we started on the Antigone this week. We’ve just started, but of course it’s great. Sophocles is just a boss. George has this thing where he simply doesn’t like Shakespeare. Which, I mean, you can love a person and still think they have one opinion that’s absolutely bonkers, right? Anyway, he’s always like, “Sophocles is so much better than Shakespeare.” And I’m like, “Dude, maybe read more Shakespeare.” But Sophocles is a fucking boss, no two ways about it].
In other news, I finally – finally! – started painting my living room. My approach is, just do one wall at a time. Which is to say, one wall per weekend. Nevermind if those weekends will wind up being consecutive. But my goodness, what a bitch of a job! And it’s not like I don’t have professional painting experience either. Well, I mean, I painted precisely two friends’ apartments in the city and they paid me. But like, that’s the definition of professional, isn’t it?
Thing is, those apartments didn’t have high ceilings. And they weren’t pre-war buildings. This place though, the ceiling in the living room is like seventeen feet high (okay, more like twelve, but whatever). And this building was built in 1905, I wanna say. So weird shit is happening in all the corners. Also down by the baseboard. Plus the walls are covered in this weird textured wallpaper, which a) is a horrifying job if you actually want to strip it (so I’m not) and b) just makes it that much harder to paint.
But paint I did, this one wall. One coat done today, I’ll put a second coat on tomorrow. Once that’s done, I can hang some art on that wall, and the room will feel a little more…היימיש. Looking forward to that. The real trick will be finding the energy/motivation to keep this going, to do the remaining walls in the coming weekends. Cos I know me. And it’s gonna be so easy to say, “Well, Davey, you did one wall. You’ve got some art up. That was a pain in the ass and you deserve a break.” I’ll try not to let that get the better of me. Stay tuned.
[Update: I did indeed finish the first wall and have hung the art I wanted to hang. So now it’s just down to the remaining walls. Update on the update: I started prepping another wall this evening and will hopefully paint it tomorrow. Also, I have ideas about the ceiling, but that’s for another post].
We had our regular Yiddish schmooze last week. Fucking fantastic. This time, we were meeting at a place that has a piano. So one guy – Jake, the dude who organizes everything – brought a songbook. This girl Luise writes in the group chat that she’s gonna bring her fiddle. I respond that I’ll bring my guitar. Another guy, Ben, brings a harmonica. Next thing I know, we’ve got a makeshift klezmer band, and we’re playing songs while the others are singing along. Brilliant.
On top of that, when were in Vienna – ground zero for classical music – my dad and brother went into a sheet music store. I don’t know why I didn’t go with them. Probably I was doing my grumpy thing. I’d like to say, “I was on the grump.” “Grumping out?” Can we make one of those a thing please? Anyway, when they come out, my dad hands me this book (Thanks, Dad!). The Jewish Songbook. It’s got all kinds of Jewish music, but it’s got one dedicated section for Yiddish-language songs and another for Klezmer instrumental music. Fantastic. So I brought that along as well, and we wound up playing a bunch of songs out of that too.
Man, let me tell you. The Yiddish schmooze is quite probably my favorite thing that I do here. Which, that’s saying a lot. Cos I’ve got my Yiddish reading with Bartek, Greek with George, Homer with the Homeridai, I read Yiddish poetry with Yael once a week, plus my German tandem with Alex. Now baseball. The Kollel. Music. I’m fucking busy, you guys. But kinda nothing makes me happier than going to these Yiddish schmoozes.
It’s largely about the language, and to a lesser extent the music. Clearly the people are awesome, otherwise none of it would matter. But one thing I really love about it is, nobody cares who the fuck you are. (And yes, this is very much about the people). But we’ve got gay people, straight people, Americans, Germans, Israelis, Poles, more probably. Hell, Luise the fiddle player ain’t even Jewish (and her Yiddish is excellent). Just, nobody cares. There’s no identity politics. It’s like, “Oh, you’re here cos you love Yiddish? זײַ באַגריסט! (Welcome!)” It’s refreshing.
My favorite, though, is always the end of the evening, when it gets down to just a handful of people. (Because we all know how well I do in groups). Sometimes it’s very chill. There was that time we mostly just told jokes. Last time, as it often is, it was just me, Jake (from NJ) and this other girl from BK. And it’s funny. If I was together with (omg “together with”? That’s so fucking German!) – If I was [just] with two other Yanks and we were all speaking German together, it would be fucking absurd. But to be with them, speaking Yiddish, it’s not absurd at all. It just feels right. I just feel so at home with those clowns. Or, instead of ‘clowns,’ how about an equivalent Yiddish word: נאַראָנים (naronim).
We all had various degrees of a serious religious upbringing, though I think me the least of all. But at one point, we were discussing a common prayer, the עלינו (aleynu). And the girl was saying how in her community, certain lines were not used. Sorta random, only kinda interesting. But I just had this feeling like, who else could I ever have this conversation with? And we’re having it in Yiddish. I know I keep saying it, but I just always feel like, “Yes, these are my people.
At one point, earlier in the evening, this woman is asking me where I’m from. So I give her the whole spiel. But she asks where in BK was I born. So I’m like, “Maimonides Hospital.” And my boy Jake is like, “The Rambam!” Because Maimonides is the Greek version of this Jewish scholar’s name. But to us, he’s known by his Jewish acronym: Rambam. Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, yields רמב״ם (Rambam). Whereas Maimonides, as I’ve said, is Greek; simply: Son of Maimon. Just as Agamemnon is often simply called Atreïdēs: Son of Atreus.
These “son of” endings, btw, are what are known as ‘patronymics,’ another Greek word which just means, ‘named for the father.’ Russian does this too. For example, “Davidovitch” just means “son of David,” or בן דוד (ben david) in Hebrew. So, –ides, –ovitch, ben-…they all just mean “son of.” And if you’re wondering, yes, Hebrew/Yiddish can do “son of a bitch.” That would be בן זונה (ben zoynah); although, more literally, that yields something like ‘son of a whore.’
The BK girl I mentioned, she also lives in NK. So we often wind up taking the train home together. And this time, we wound up having quite an interesting discussion. In broad strokes, it was about…well, you know what? This post is already long enough. And that discussion warrants a fuller recounting. So perhaps I’ll get to it next time.
I know this post is pretty long already, but I haven’t written in a while, so there’s lots to catch up on. Two more things.
First, Rosh HaShanah. The BK girl from the Yiddish schmooze had a couple of us over Friday night, erev, to ‘celebrate.’ This time, it wasn’t so much about speaking Yiddish but rather, just to be able to spend this big-deal holiday with some fellow Yids. It was very nice. Five of us in all. Me, the hostess, this other woman (also somehow from BK), Harmonica-Ben and his Polish (and presumably goyish) bf. We had a great time. At one point, the fellas left, so it was just Team NY. We told stories and jokes, laughed a lot and probably had a bit of serious discussion as well.
The weirdest thing. So the woman – and I forget how it even came up – but she uses this word, “padoodle.” And then she’s like, “But you guys probably don’t know what that is.” And I’m like, “Um, is it a car with one headlight out?” And she’s like, “How the fuck do you know that??” And I’m like, “I went to school upstate. Where it was called a ‘padiddle,’ btw. How the fuck do you know that??” And she’s like, “I went to school in Michigan.” I guess the word has currency above a certain latitude. So that was weird and surprising and hilarious. We wound up researching the word and apparently it goes back to the ‘40s. Also, there were games. Like, if you saw one, you would yell “Padoodle/Padiddle” and then punch your friend. Unless your friend was a girl, in which case she had to kiss you. (Oh, Patriarchy). Though if she spotted one, she gets to land a punch. In one of the old stories we read, one poor lad was like, “This girl hit like Joe Louis!” Which, just, what a sentence. So that was a good night.
Next day, Saturday afternoon and the first full day of Rosh HaShanah, Yael had me (and a bunch of others) over for lunch. Lovely as always. She’s not doing the Kollel this semester. She’s moved on to a proper hardcore Talmud class. Which kinda breaks my heart, to lose my Khavrusa. But it’s the right move for her. And I’m really excited for her. It’s a big time commitment though. So it’s gonna be hard for us to find time to keep reading Yiddish poetry. Hopefully we can find a way. I know it’s important to both of us.
The other thing. So about a week ago or so, Jake (Yiddish schmooze organizer) sends a message to the group chat saying that some Ukrainian group is making some sort of film and that they’re looking for Yiddish speakers to read some dialogue. Interesting, sure, but I hardly thought I was qualified. I mean, if you were to sort of divide the people who come to the schmooze into groups of ‘advanced’ and ‘not advanced,’ I’d put myself in the advanced group. But I’d also say that I’m probably the weakest of that bunch. Just an observation for context.
But then Jake sends the same message to me directly, albeit without any extra commentary. So then I figure, well, Jake knows my level as well as anybody. If he’s sending this to me direct, he must think I’m up to it. So why not? So I reached out to the contact person and offered my services. She invited me down last Sunday to read.
It was just a short paragraph, plus two lines of dialogue. I asked the girl if she could send me the text in advance so I could practice; she did. And so when I got there, I was well enough prepared. I recorded my lines in a few takes. In the course of that, she gave me some feedback. She’s Ukrainian and she had a Russian (or possibly Ukrainian) translation, meaning that even though she didn’t speak Yiddish, she could gauge the emotional tenor of my reading. She asked me to try it a couple of different ways until she got what she wanted. In the end, she was pleased with my work. And I have to say, I was satisfied myself. Maybe not ‘proud.’ I don’t think I did an amazing job. But solid. I’d say solid.
Anyway, she sends it off to the director. A few minutes later, she comes back to me and is like, “So the director actually really liked your reading and would like to know if you’d be willing to read another text as well.” I mean, sure, why not? After all, this is a pretty cool project. She showed me some clips from the film. It’s a claymation, stop-motion affair, which I totally fucking love. So I’m thinking it’s actually kinda cool to be a part of this.
Then she shows me the text. Now it’s like a whole page. Which, fine. But also, it’s a super religious text. And not just religious, but like crazy kabbalistic. What this means, as a practical matter, is that it’s full of Hebrew and Aramaic words I’ve never seen before. Some of them I can kinda figure out what they mean. Others I have no idea. But almost all of them, I have zero idea how to pronounce. So this is now way above my pay-grade.
This is in Neukölln, btw. Maybe a 15m walk from my place. So I ask if I can go home and grab my dictionary, as there’s no way I can do this cold. She says that’s fine, so I do. When I get back, I’m sitting at her kitchen table with the text and my dictionary painstakingly digging up each of these obscure terms. It’s going slow. Finally, I’m like, “Is there any way I can come back tomorrow? There’s just no way I can give you what you need on the spot like this.” She speaks to her sound guy and we all agree I can come back Monday afternoon.
In the meantime, they send me an actual recording of the text. If I understand it right, they’d actually had a native speaker record it, but weren’t super pleased with it. When I heard it, I could understand why. He spoke it like a native speaker. Fast and mushed together, hard to understand. I could understand it, but I was ambivalent about it. Like, sure, it might not fit with their artistic vision, but how much sense could it make to replace a native speaker with some rando who needs a dictionary just to figure out what he’s saying?
On top of which, it wasn’t just some random native speaker. It was a proper Yiddishist. I’m not gonna name him, but he often writes for the Forward among many other things. So he’s kind of a big deal in Yiddish circles. And I’m supposed to replace his recording? I was ambivalent. But that’s what they wanted for their film, so I agreed.
So I went home and practiced as best I could. Went back the next day and read as best I could. In the end, I gave them two full takes of the text. They seemed pleased with it in the end. I don’t know how I feel about it. I can’t say I’m proud of it. If I thought the first text was solid, the best I can say about this one is that – hopefully – it’s passable. But I sorta worry that if any Yiddish speaker worth their salt were to hear my work on this second text, they might think, “Yeesh, where did they find this guy?” Maybe I’m being too hard on myself. But it was a bear of a text, and I feel like it took all my effort just to read it straight, nevermind actually making it sound believable.
In the course of all this, nobody ever asked me my full name. So I was sorta curious as to whether I would be credited for my work. After the first text, I kinda hoped I would be. It’s a pretty cool project, looks like it’s gonna be a pretty cool film. Could be neat to have my name attached to that. But after the second text, I was reconsidering. Like, maybe it’s for the best if it’s just anonymous, you know? Nevermind not wanting to embarrass myself, I don’t really need to be the guy that replaced the actual native speaker and didn’t do an amazing job on top of that.
But just the other day, the girl messaged me asking me if I’d like to be credited and if so, how. So I just told her, “Only if the other Yiddish speakers are also being credited; and if so, here’s my full name.” I didn’t hear back from her, so I guess we’ll find out sooner or later. I’m curious. Mostly curious to see the film itself. Apart from the claymation stop-motion stuff, which looked really fucking great, she also told me it’s multilingual: Russian, Ukrainian, Yiddish and Polish. I think that’s really fucking cool. I’m kinda excited to see the final product actually. I’ll hold off on being embarrassed until I do. I mean, maybe it’ll work out quite well in the end. Or it won’t. Either way, it was a pretty cool experience. I’m glad I got to be a part of it. Interesting things just keep falling into my lap. ברוך השם, I guess. Anyway, that’s well past enough for one post.
Until next time…