An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
25 August, 2020

Well, happy fucking new year you guys.  (It’s the Jewish New Year for you goyimreading this (or, it was at the time of writing, anyway)).  L’Shanah To-fucking-vah.  I want to say this coming year can’t be any worse than the last, but let’s reserve judgment until after the election shall we?  So, on to happier things.

My music project with Bibi and Ralf has taken a turn for the serious.  Like, I think we’re officially a band now.  Bibi was over a last week (or the week before last, depending on when I hit ‘publish’) to record Malaika.  I’ll come back to that in a minute.  But while she was over, we got to talking about the, well, band. 

Basically, things are getting more serious, slowly but surely.  Her husband bought us (read, her) a PA system.  I’ve now bout not only an electric guitar for this project – my beautiful Leyka – but now also a bass (name pending).1  And just recently Ralf had a custom electric nylon-string guitar made up, just for this project.  Our last two outings, we’ve played sets of twenty songs.  Which means we’ve got a repertoire of something like thirty songs, and it continues to grow.  

So the question was, are we ready to take the next step.  Which, at this point, simply means making a greater commitment in terms of time and effort.  Remember how all this started.  Bibi was always at the center of it.  After she was my student we jammed a few times on a couple of songs.  Meanwhile, she was taking guitar lessons from Ralf.

One day, she invited me to join her at one of her lessons.  It went well enough that it became a regular thing.  After work on Fridays, I’d head up to Ralf’s and join in for the last hour or so.  Well, here we are, over a year later (I think), and Bibi and I realized one hour a week wasn’t gonna cut it.  Especially if that hour was ostensibly her guitar lesson.  The only other practice we had was, we’d meet the day before a gig and run the whole set.  That was it.

So when she was over, we agreed that we’d need to get more serious about rehearsing.  She said she’d talk to Ralf, and he was on board.  So as of last week, we’re now gonna practice once a week, Thursday evenings, 7-10.  We had our first such practice this past Thursday.  And you guys, it was like a proper band practice!  Really exciting.  Like, there was a new energy in the room, you know?

We worked up a version of Norwegian Wood, and I gotta say, this shit slaps.2  It starts with a two part a cappella verse with me and Ralf and we end it with a three-part a cappella verse as well.  And in the middle, I get a bass solo (!).   

I mean, we’re starting to grow now too in terms of harmony.  I don’t remember if I talked about this in a previous post, so if this is old news, I apologize.  But to this point, when B&R sing together, they basically just do octaves with each other.  And it’s kinda been on me to do any kind of harmony that’s not just octaves.  Which is a challenge I embrace.  I can often, though not always, find something nice. It still doesn’t come naturally to me, but it’s getting better.

What’s great though is how supportive and encouraging they are in this.  Like, now they just look at me and it’s like, “Hey, Dave, can you throw a nice harmony on this part?”  Uh, I can try.  But they trust me in that regard.  And it’s cool to see how excited they get when I hit on something good.

Meanwhile, as I’ve also mentioned, Bibi has brought her singing teacher down to our last two pre-gig practices.  He’s worked with us on technique, but he’s also helped out with the harmonies.  For me personally, it’s been a big help.  And another confidence booster.  Because he’ll just let me go, you know?  “Dave, just try shit.”  If it works, he’ll encourage me to keep it.  If it doesn’t quite hit, he’ll work on it with me.  So that’s been cool.

But he’s also starting to get those two out of their octave comfort zone as well.  Which is fantastic.  Because it’s opening the door to more interesting three-part harmonies. Like with this Norwegian Wood business. I guess B&R worked on it before hand with Felix, the singing teacher.  So when I showed up, they already had this badass harmony on the chorus. And it’s just like, shiiiit.  I wanna say, with this song, we sound more like a proper band than we have at any time up til now.  So yeah, things are heating up and it’s pretty fucking exciting.

I mentioned that I had Bibi over to record Malaika.  Malaika is a Swahili song that we’ve got in the set.  It’s super simple, but also really beautiful.  And I knew as soon as I built this damned studio that one of the first things I wanted to do was get her over here and make a proper recording of it.

Friday, I finished mixing a, well, let’s call it a first draft.  I sent it to Bibi, but I haven’t heard back from her yetand she was happy with the overall product, although she may want to redo the vocals; which I think would be a good idea.  But overall I think it sounds really good, tbh.  I also sent it to Justin for some feedback, and that was a huge help.  Just to get another set of ears on it.

I mean, I’ve sent everything I’ve done so far to Justin and he’s always been very helpful.  Sometimes it’s technical tips about the recording or mixing process.  But sometimes it’s just about the sound of things.  Which is mostly what it was with Malaika.  And the difference between the way it sounded before and after we talked was night and day.

Also, it’s just a really nice way to connect.  Like, I don’t get to see him but once or twice a year under normal circumstances. I last saw him in November, and who knows when we’ll be able to travel again.  So to just be able to get on the phone and talk is great.  But when it’s about music, that’s even better.  And when it’s about mymusic, that’s just fantastic.  

Also, he noticed my bass line.  I should back up.  I said Malaika is a super simple song, and it is.  But I wrote a bass line for it, which in its way, is really like a vocal harmony.  In fact, someone who saw us live commented to me that it was almost like a duet between Bibi and the bass.  Which made me really happy, because I worked pretty hard on that.  So to see it appreciated was really nice.  

But I didn’t mention the bass at all to Justin, I simply sent him the track.  And he’s like, “By the way, did you write that bass line or is it an original part of the song?”  And I’m like, “No, I wrote that shit.”  And he was like, “Dude, that’s really good.”  High praise.  

No, really, high praise. Because, you see, Justin is a Starr. And what that means is, we’re super analytical and unemotional in our assessments.  So we’ll point out the good or the bad like doctors.  Thus, when a Starr says, “Dude, that’s really good,” you know you did something right.  I was, to use a Britishism, chuffed.

So that’s where all that’s at.  In other news, the Islanders finally bowed out of the playoffs, making it all the way to Game 6 of the Conference Finals.  It was a hell of a ride.  Also exhausting, as the games routinely started at 2am here.  Some games went to OT, so they ended at like 5am.  One even went to double OT; that one ended at 6am.  #fml  It was exhausting, and in a way, I’m relieved it’s over.  But man, that was a hell of a ride.  For the first time in a long time, it felt good to be an Islander fan.

In other other news, last weekend Joschka and I drove down to Bavaria for one of our friends’ birthday. The usual shtick.  Drink a lot, eat a lot, laugh a lot.  And as I’ve written so many times before, there’s just so much love in the room with those people.  I mean, we see each other just a couple times a year, and there’s not a whole lot of communication when we’re not together.  Yet somehow, there’s a real bond there.  It’s like a big extended family.

A highlight was, as so often, a late night guitar session.  They have their songs they like me to play, which I’m happy to do if I can remember them.  But almost every gathering, I’ll also make up a song on the spot.  People seem to love them – they still talk about ‘The Squirrel Song’ from like five years ago – but also, we’re all drunk and nobody’s ever recorded them, so who knows really?  And as with most unrecorded improvisations, they’re irrevocably lost to time.

But this time, Joschka had the (good?) sense to record it.  It was essentially a birthday song for Marina, our friend.  But I made up a verse about everybody at the table, which makes it a little more fun.  Anyway, I saw the video and it was pretty funny.  But more than that, it was great to see people clapping and laughing and singing along to the chorus.  Because if you do it right, you can wing a good, simple, catchy chorus that people can actually sing along to.  It wasn’t high art, but it wasn’t bad either.

Although I did spot some obvious mistakes in my German.  Oh, did I mention I do these songs are in German?  That’s right friends, Dave drunkenly makes up songs in German. Bonus points for improving in not your own language, amirite?

Here’s a funny thing. I’ve got a cousin in Seattle.  Or she’s from Seattle, anyway.  No idea where she is now or what she’s up to. Years and years ago, one of my dad’s sisters moved out there and I really didn’t see much of them after that. So I have this cousin, whose name escapes me, who I’ve met like twice.  The point is, she’s a super talented musician.  And the one time I actually remember meeting her as a grown person, she comes with her guitar and just starts making up songs on the spot. Properly good songs, too.  And funny as all get out.  And all I remember thinking was – and this was years before I ever started singing myself – I just remember thinking, “Man, I wish I could do that!”

Well, now I guess I can. And in German too!  I mean, if you put enough booze in me and surround me with the right people.  But hey, achievement unlocked.

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got time and/or energy for tonight.  A couple weeks ago I started a post which I never finished.  Some of it is still relevant, some of it has been superseded by this post.  But I’ll append it to the end here anyway.

That said, I wish you all a happy new year.  May you all be written into the good side of The Big Guy’s book and have a blessed year.

לשנה טובה תכתבו און א גוט געבענטשט יאר

Here follows the aforementioned two-week old unfinished post…

How about those Islanders, eh?  I mean, they’re killing me.  But in a good way.  They’ve just advanced to the second round of the playoffs.  Which is great and exciting news.  And also…I get at least another four games starting at 2am.  Yay?  Nothing like going to work completely exhausted because you were up all night watching a hockey game from the other side of the world.  My boss has been pretty understanding thus far though.  So there’s that at least.

Also, there’s music. I forget where things were at last post. I was working on an electric guitar arrangement of a Renaissance choral work.  Well, that’s finished.  All in all, I was pretty pleased with it.  As a first attempt / learning experience anyway.  But now things are heating up.

I dug out an old song I’d written back in the Chinatown days as the first track I was gonna work on as an actual song.  By which I mean, with vocals.  Well, the first part was easy.  Just laying down the acoustic guitar track and the main vocal line on top of it.  So far, that was nothing new.  I mean, that’s no different than what I normally do. Except that rather than playing and singing at the same time, now I split them up for recording purposes. But that was easy.  Just getting the tracks down, I mean.

But then came the real challenge.  To wit, the vocal harmonies.  In the last post, I wrote about how I’ve been pushing myself to provide backing harmonies with Bibi and Ralf.  Which is hard enough for me.  What I mean is, harmonizing is still relatively new ground for me.  And it’s enough to worry about when I’m just adding one harmony for myself over what they’re singing.  

Here though, I’m writing multi-part (well, two-part thus far) harmonies for my own music.  And lemme tell you, it’s a whole new world, friends.  Before going any further, I should clarify just what kind of music we’re talking about here.  

Most of what I’ve written in the past derives from basically two main streams of influence.  The first is what I’ll call ‘classic rock and roll.’ Buddy Holly being the biggest influence there.  The other main influence is Irish folk, mostly filtered through The Pogues.  

So my first question in all of this was, what kind of backing vocals are right for this kind of music?  I decided I wanted to go in a 50’s doo-wop kind of direction.  About which I know absolutely nothing.  So I turned to the internets for help.  Whereupon did I tweet the following: “Is there like a book on doo-wop vocal harmony theory or do I just have to figure this shit out all on my lonesome?”

To which Jared replied: “Use your ears like the rest of us!”  Ugh.  Thanks, guy. Of course he was right.  But rather than turn to Buddy Holly and the Crickets, whose backing vocals I always found a bit corny, I decided to look elsewhere. Where, you ask?  Why, The Crystals!  Two songs, in particular.  The Do Ron Ron and Then He Kissed Me.  Because those girls are on fucking point with their harmonies.3  So I used that as a starting point.

“Use your ears,” he had said.  Well, there’s two ways to do this.  One is to listen to others’ recordings.  But the other is just to experiment, to just try out different lines and listen to the results.  Trial and error in other words.  Between these two approaches, I started to have some success; started to have some stuff I was fairly happy with.

So I reached out again to Jared and Justin, at which point they started to hit me with some useful feedback and and tips.  And Friday I picked up a music notebook.  You know, one of those where instead of lines for writing, it’s pre-printed with music staves.  With this I was able to work out the finer details of what I was trying to do.

At this point, I’m pretty sure I’ve got the harmonies where I want them for this song.  Of course, writing the harmonies and singing them are two different things.  I mean, it took me a long time just to teach myself to be able to sing and play at the same time.  And when you’re singing alone, you have a larger margin for error, pitch-wise.  Not that you can afford to be “off,” but you don’t necessarily have to be perfect.  

Now, though, Iam singing with both meand myself, as it were.  The margin for error is considerably smaller.  I can do it.  I mean, I’ve done it.  The tracks are down.  And they’re pretty solid, though I wouldn’t say perfect.  But it did require many takes, many attempts.  

But I have to say, I’m pretty happy with what I’ve got so far.  And I’m pretty proud of what I’ve come up with.  Again, in the context of a first attempt.  Still though.  Writing and recording is only the beginning.  Because even when that’s all done, I’ve still got to mix everything. I’ve got to take it from a raw recording and turn it into a “song,” something that’s actually pleasant to listen to.  

And the goal here is to arrive at an end product that is actually “good,” whatever that means.  I think I know what it means.  It means, it can’t be enough to just be interesting to the people who already know me and care about me and are by default interested in what I’m doing.  It has to be good enough to play for somebody who doesn’t know me that well, somebody who doesn’t give a shit about Dave per se. It has to be good enough for thatperson to sit up and say, “Hey, you know, this is pretty good!”  

I hope I’m not getting ahead of myself.  I hope I’m not delusional.  But I really think I can do that.  I think I write music that is catchy, pleasant.  Music that swings.  With lyrics that are worth the time to hear.  Which is not to say I think I’m writing stuff that deserves a record contract or radio play.  Far from it. But stuff that I can play out in front of strangers and have them enjoy it?  Stuff that my friends could play for their own friends and have them like it enough to maybe want a copy?  Yeah, I think I can swing that.  Or maybe I’m delusional.  Fuck do I know?

Anyway, that’s been this past week.  Every day after work, I take a nap.  And then when I wake up, I hit the studio.  Oh, the studio, I’ll come back to that in a sec.  But I’d say I’ve been putting in 3-4 hours every day, working on this one tune.  And I think it’s paying off.  More than that though, it’s fun as hell.  I mean, I love making music.  I can’t get enough.  And I’ve got a backlog of songs built up over the years.  So when this tune is finished, I’ll move straight onto the text one. I can’t wait.

So yeah, the studio. I’ve rearranged my kitchen so that I’ve got a permanent studio setup there now.  I’ve got my recording booth in the corner, with a music stand beside it. On the other side, I’ve got a table where I set up my computer.  Very neat and tidy.  Small, but efficient.  I even hooked the fridge up to a switch, so I can shut if off when I’m recording; because the last thing you want is that electrical hum creeping in.  There’s a picture of all this on my Insta.  

And there’s a new element that I’ll soon be incorporating.  Namely, bass guitar.  As things are progressing with Bibi and Ralf, I decided to spring for a bass.  As things stand, there are already a number of songs in our set where I just play a bass line on the guitar anyway.  So I figured it was time for the real deal.

I wrote last time how I started out (and to some extent still am) seeing myself as a bit of a hired gun in that project.  I’m trying to get away from that mindset, though, and one way I’m doing that is take a sort of jack-of-all-trades approach.  A bit of depth and color with the guitar?  Sure.  A lyrical guitar solo?   I can do that.  We need a harmony here?  On it. This song would be better served by bass than guitar.  Let’s do it.

Until the last show, all of the songs we play had been chosen by Bibi and Ralf.  Only recently did I step out of my comfort zone in that regard in suggesting that we play a Yiddish song.  So we debuted Toom Balalaika at our last show.  It fit right in.

So the next – and maybe final – step for me, is to see how they feel about doing one of my songs. All we’ve done to this point has been covers.  Which, to be honest, is what they want, I think.  I mean, as much as anything, I think this is a way for them to play and share the music that they already love.

And don’t get me wrong, covers are fun.  In every band I’ve ever been in, we’ve always done some covers.  But for me, the point of being in bands was always to play original music.  Writing has always been very important to me.  And that’s even informed my approach to this project.  Because even though we’re playing covers, they’re almost always songs I’ve never heard before.  And I’m very careful to avoid ever hearing the original.  As much as possible, I want what I play to be my own, not a copy of somebody else’s guitar parts.  Sure, sometimes it’s unavoidable.  The song is the song, after all.  And sometimes they specifically ask me to play exactly what’s on the record.  If they ask, sure.  But my goal is always to bring something new, something personal to the music.  To have that avenue for creation and self-expression.

So I don’t know how they’re going to feel when I ask them if they’d be interested in playing something I’ve written.  But I’m hoping they’ll be into it.  And if not this song, then maybe the next one.

But I hasten to add, this isn’t about taking over the spotlight or anything like that.  In that regard, Monty Python, of all people, have been very instructive to my way of thinking in this matter.  The Pythons have always said that they never cared who performed what roles.  That they had no egos as actors.  The only thing they cared about was the material, the comedy.  I kinda love that.  And it’s kinda how I feel about this.

I don’t care who takes the lead vocal, who’s the star of the song, so to speak.  If it happens to fit Ralf’s voice or range better than my own, so be it.  If it sounds better with a woman’s voice, then Bibi should take the lead.  I’m more than happy to just do backup harmonies on my own songs.  

The point is, I think it’s good music.  And more to the point, I think it could sound really good with the three of us doing it together.  So like I said, I’m hoping their open to the concept.  And I hope I’ve got at least one song they like enough to actually want to perform.  So we’ll see. First things first though.  And that means I have to produce a recoding that’s good enough to present to them.  And we’ll take it from there.  

I said that there’s a new element I’ll be incorporating, and that that was the bass guitar.  That’s true even in my own recordings.  So now I’ve got the guitar down.  I’ve got the main vocal line down.  I’ve got the harmonies pretty much where I want them. The next step is to add a bass guitar part.  And I’m not a bass player.  So this is a new challenge.

I don’t mean playing the instrument itself.  If you can play the guitar, you can play the bass.  But what makes a good bass line?  It’s a whole new way of approaching a song.  It’s a skill I’ve got to learn, an ear I’ve got to develop, if you will.  I’m confident I can do it.  But it will take time and a lot of experimentation.  It will also take a lot of listening.  A lot of “using my ears,” as Jared said.  

Which leaves only one final missing piece, and that is the most daunting of all.  I’m talking about drums.  It’s daunting on two levels.  First, I know absolutely nothing about drums.  And unlike going from guitar to bass, which is a transferable skill, drums is a beast all its own. 

But add to that, we’re not even talking about real drums.  In terms of recording in my home studio here, we’re talking about synth drums. Now, there are all kinds of programs and plugins made just for people like me.  So, when I’m feeling confident, I do feel like I can master at least the very basics.  Enough, at least, to end up with the most basic of drum tracks which will hopefully compliment my songs.  But that’s a whole new world for me, one I have not so much as even dipped a toe into yet.4

The good news is that, in the context of bringing a track to Bibi and Ralf, drums don’t matter.  We don’t have a drummer anyway.  So at least there’s no pressure in that regard.  But at the end of the day, if I’m talking about recording my own music, and if my own music is rock and roll, well, sooner or later, it’s gonna need drums.  

Anyway, that’s more or less where things are at musically at the moment.  And that’s probably where I’m gonna end this post.  I mean, I’ve got a million other things going on, as the regular reader of this blogue is no doubt aware.  The weekly Torah readings, the weekly Yiddish schmooze/readings, Latin, French, Shakespeare, work, something like a social life, the angst/guilt of not finding any time for Greek, translation projects, the Islanders. It’s a wonder I’ve found time enough even to write this much.

But I wanted to write this. The music is so much fun right now and I wanted to share that.  Hopefully, in a very short time, I’ll be able to share the music itself.  So, you know, stay tuned.  Don’t touch that dial, even.  In the meantime,

זײַ געזונט

  1. I’m leaning heavily towards Sally, as in Long Tall Sally.  Because she’s slim, hourglass shaped and has a long neck.  Plus, you know, Little Richard. []
  2. I think “it slaps” is current slang, or so I gather from Twitter.  It’s really hard to stay on top of slang when you’re living in a foreign country. Which is fun when you then go to teach a bit of slang.  “A cool way to say this would be…”  And then, “Well, that was the cool way to say it four years ago.  Who knows what people are saying now.” []
  3. Also, crazy good production values from Phil “I’m definitely crazy and also probably killed a person” Spector. []
  4. #AnalogyFail – one does not dip one’s toe into a world… []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
3 August, 2020

Oh hey.  You’re still here?  Shit, how long have you been waiting?  Well.  This is embarrassing.  Sorry I haven’t written in a while.  I was…delayed.  (He says, as if he’d been busy with a Balrog on the bridge of Khazad Dūm.  He hadn’t been).  No but really though, I’ve been busy.  Overwhelmingly, exhaustingly busy.  Bitten-off-more-than-I-can-chew busy.  

But busy with good things. Well, mostly good things.  There was my little home recording booth that I built.  And now using it to record music.  Learning Latin.  Reading Hebrew.  My weekly shmooz with Bartek and our Yiddish readings.  Yiddish translation.  German translation.  The band. Whatever passes for my social life. Oh yeah, and also work.  You know, my job(s).  

Let’s start with the little home recording booth I mentioned.  See, what happened was, a couple months back, I bought a guitar online. A guitar I’d wanted for quite a while, actually.  A Jackson Rhoads flying-V.  Ivory with black pinstripes and gold hardware.  I’ve named her Antoinette.  Because let’s face it, she’s kind of a diva.  But I love her.  Anyway, I bought her online because I found a really good deal I felt like I couldn’t pass up.  

So they ship her in this big honking cardboard box, inside of which was yet another big ol’ cardboard box. And I thought to myself, so much sturdy cardboard shouldn’t go to waste.  So what can I do with it?  And on top of that, I also had this giant Amazon cardboard box from this nifty little bamboo drink cart I’d ordered earlier this year.  

I don’t know the idea came to me, but basically, I realized that if I opened the doors of the guitar box, it was like a tiny little closet.  And the Amazon box was this big flat rectangle.  So somehow it occurred to me that I could assemble this all in such a way as to create a Dave-sized booth.  And it took off from there, really.  

But what an all-consuming project that turned out to be.  First thing I had to do was just buy a decent box cutter.  From there, it was a couple days of refining the design on paper. Which progressed to days and days of measuring and cutting and gluing and further refining the design for stability. After a couple of weeks, it was really starting to take shape, and I was pretty pleased with what I’d wrought.  

Except for one problem. Because it was made of cardboard, it looked ghetto as all get out.  At which point I realized I would have to paint the damn thing.  Now, sure, I could have just painted it all black and had done with it.  But what fun would that be?

So I reached out to Dale and asked him, if I sent him the dimensions, could he possibly draft for me a dazzle paint design for it.  To which he immediately responded with a photo of an actual book of dazzle paint designs accompanied by the caption, “Achem *dusts off.”  Because of course Dale just happened to have a book of dazzle paint schemes laying around.  I mean, this is why we’re friends.  Well, one reason out of many.

Dazzle paint, for anybody who might be wondering, is an oldschool style of camouflage, largely used on naval ships during the first and second world wars.  It’s basically disjointed geometric shapes in various shades of blues, grays, blacks and whites.  The idea was, in the times before radar, that this would make it difficult to determine the distance and heading of the…wait for it…bedazzled (!) ships.  

Well, as a design concept, it’s something I’ve always been fond of.  And Dale too; clearly.  Anyway, so Dale sent me the design.  Which I instantly fell in love with.  There was only one problem.  I would have to actually paint this design!  And ain’t no paintner, as Bubbi would say.  

Right, so the first thing I had to do was print out 1/5 scale color copies of each panel.  Then I had to buy a ruler, a protractor and a triangle.  You know, so I could get all the distances and angles properly measured.  Then I had to transfer that to the actual booth. Then I had to mask off all the lines. And then, you know, actually paint. Although before I could paint, I also had to newspaper over a quarter of my kitchen, which was now my painting studio. 

All of this was like another two weeks of work.  And many trips to the hardware store (a half hour walk each way) to buy ever more cans of spray paint.  But I got it done in the end, and although it’s not perfect, I have to say, it looks pretty badass.  

And then the final step. I had to install the soundproofing. Insulation foam, which I ordered from The Great Frenemy, Amazon.  And as a finishing touch, I installed a neat little LED light.  So there it was.  Finally. My own private little recording booth. 

Except, in order to record, you need tech.  A microphone, a mic stand, a shock mount for the mic, a pop screen for the mic, an I/O box to transfer the signal from the mic to the computer, an XLR cable to connect it all.

Here’s the thing about tech though.  You need to learn how to use it.  So then followed hours upon hours of Youtube tutorials.  Some on the hardware, some on the recording software.  Great.  But once you have a rough idea of how to use the stuff, you’ve gotta actually, you know, use it.  

This led to a solid two weeks of recording.  I decided the best thing to do would be to start small.  Guitars only.  One thing at a time, you know?  So I settled on a piece of Renaissance choral music which I’ve long adored and had always wanted to adapt for guitar.

So that led to like two weeks of just recording the guitar parts.  The piece itself is written for four voices.  Your standard Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass.  But since it’s choral music, I decided to record each voice twice; once each with each of my guitars.  That would be Leyka, the Gretsch I use with Bibi and Ralf; and Antoinette, my new V.

It’s not a terribly complicated or challenging piece of music.  But I still had to learn and practice four unique parts.  At which point I then had to do many takes, because I needed it to be as close to perfect as I could get it.  And, in mittendrinnen, learn the tech.  Get the right sound out of my amp.  Get the mic placement right.  Get the levels right.  Make sure the signal was coming into the software correctly.  

I learned a lot, and by the end it was going it a pretty good pace.  But it was a lot of work.  And of course the actual recording is just the beginning.  Because once of you’ve recorded it, you need to mix it. And that’s a whole new series of Youtube tutorials.  A whole new mess of trial and error.

It’s almost done now, I’m happy to report.  There are still things in the mix I need to tweak.  Bring this voice out a little more over there; lower that voice a touch over here.  But it’s good enough that finally this week I was able to send a copy to Justin, just to get some feedback.  That turned into like a two-hour phone conversation.  A very productive and interesting conversation.  But I was pretty tired at work the next day.

So like I said, it’s nearly finished.  And I have to say, I’m pretty proud of it.  As a first attempt, anyway.  I mean, I think it sounds pretty fucking cool.  But of course, also like I said, that’s just the beginning.  Like, now I’ve got a rough feel for the tech in general and a basic understanding of how to work with (electric) guitars.  So the next step is vocals.  Which will be more Youtube tutorials, more trial and error. And more complicated mixing.  

Don’t get me wrong, I’m super excited about it.  I sit down to work and next thing I know, three hours have flown by.  It’s fun.  And it’s a creative outlet that I desperately need.  But it’s also time.  And I have so much to do.

All this to say, the last six weeks have been consumed with building my little booth and learning how to record and mix.  And all this, why?  Because I bought a guitar and it came in a box.  Life is funny like that. 

Speaking of Bibi and Ralf and our little band.  We’re back to playing again.  Only, you can’t really have a show indoors at the moment, so now the owner of the café has us playing in the garden, which is lovely.  Except, how do you make two acoustic guitars work outside?  Good question.  Well, Bibi’s husband gifted us (read: her) a nice PA system.  Oh great, more tech to learn!  But this wasn’t so complicated.  And at least here, I have some experience already.  All those of years of playing in bands coming in handy. Who knew?

We’ve played one show so far with the PA.  There were some bugs, which was to be expected, but overall it went pretty well. The next show is on the 8th

Since all we play is covers anyway, I asked Bibi how she would feel about trying a Yiddish song. She was all for it, which was lovely. The song I chose was “Toom Balalaika.” I thought it would be a good fit because it’s an easy catchy chorus.  But also because it tells a short little story in three verses.  The first verse is a narrator, the second is a man and the third is a woman.  So I thought we could each take a verse, if they didn’t mind trying their handvoice at a bit of mama loshn.  I wasn’t sure how they’d feel about that, but actually they were pretty receptive.  

So I worked up a transliteration that would make sense to a German speaker as well as an actual German translation so they could understand what they were singing.  And actually they took to it pretty quickly.  There were a couple of words I needed to explain and a few aspects of pronunciation I had to walk them through, but they got the hang of it in short order.  It was kinda funny actually.  Because for them, it was just mostly a bizarre kind of German.  I mean, they were actually laughing.  It was kinda cute.

Last week, Bibi and I worked on it alone.  I even worked up a nice harmony on the chorus for her to sing.  She was actually pretty excited about that.  Turns out she wants to do more harmony stuff, which is great. 

Tangentially, we do a version of “Sound of Silence.”  I don’t sing on that, it’s just her and Ralf on the vocals.  But the point is, they’re quite capable of harmonizing when they put their minds to it.  But apart from that song, they mostly just sing octaves with each other.  Til now, I’ve been the one to add more complicated harmonies.

Which doesn’t come naturally to me, I should add.  It’s something I have to work at.  But it’s also something I really like and something I want to not just get better at but actually be good at.  And I’m hoping I can start nudging us towards some three-part harmonies somewhere down the line. 

Anyway, Friday, we jammed on it all together for the first time.  And it went really well.  Ralf took to it instantly, which was great.  And it was sounding pretty fucking solid, if I do say so myself.  So we’ll see how it goes at the show.  But I’m pretty excited about it.

But here’s where I really gotta take my hat off to Bibi.  I was pretty ambivalent about bringing this song to the group.  There’s a number of reasons for that.  First is, I kinda feel like a bit of a hired gun with this group.  To be clear, they don’t make feel that way at all.  That’s all from me.  But they were together before I came along.  They choose all the songs.  And at the end of the day, it’s not generally my kind of music.

So I’ve always kind of viewed my job as finding a way to just enrich what they’re doing.  Yeah, of course, I want to express myself and bring something unique to the music.  But always in the service of what they’re already doing.  

I don’t think they see me that way.  But it’s how I see myself in this project.  So I was wary of imposing myself where it wasn’t my place; in my view. And then yeah, asking people to do a song in a language that they don’t speak, I wasn’t sure about that either. And finally, because it’s Jewish music. 

And look, of course they know I’m Jewish.  And that’s obviously no problem amongst us.  But anytime you put your Judaism on display in public, I think there’s always a bit of hesitation.  Warranted or not, you know?

What was the point? Oh yeah, tipping my hat to Bibi. No yeah, so she really embraced the idea.  Especially because of the Jewish aspect.  Because see, she’s half black.  And we’ve got a Swahili song in the set already, “Malaika”, which I fucking love, not for nothing.  And I gather that’s rather important to her.

So she’s like, “We already have a Swahili song for me.  We should absolutely do a Yiddish song for you.  And not for nothing, with all Ralf’s background in flamenco, we should get him to pick a Spanish song.”  I mean, what a beautiful attitude to have about all this.

But there’s more. Only first, you gotta understand the song a little bit.  Like I said, it’s three verses: a narrator, a guy and a girl.  And it’s kind of a love song.  The guy sings the girl a riddle about love and she solves the riddle in turn. And the way we’ve arranged it, Ralf is the narrator (first verse), I’m the guy (second verse) and she’s the maydel (third verse).  

So she says to me, “Look, you’re kinda shy on stage, which is fine.  You kinda just hang back and play your guitar and that’s OK.  You jump on the mic for your harmonies, but you don’t really interact with the crowd.  And again, that’s fine.  But here, you’re really going to be singing.  And you’re not just telling a story, you’re singing to the girl in the song, you’re singing to me.  

“So you have to come alive a bit more.  You have to make eye contact with the audience.  You have to sing to me.” And of course she’s right.  But these are not things that I’m naturally comfortable with.  But she’s patient and she’s working on it with me.   

The point is, she’s helping to bring me out of my shell, as it were.  Which was not something I was expecting when I signed on to this project. But it’s very much another way for me to grow as a musician and something I absolutely should be doing.  

And it’s not just on this song, either. In general she’s always trying to get me to sing more. Like, “Hey, do you want to sing this verse?”  Or, “Your voice would sound really good here.”  Or, “Maybe you can add one of your nice harmonies over here.”

The point is, however much I might view myself as a hired gun, she’s very much trying to make me an equal partner in all this.  And like I said, trying to get me out of my shell.  So that’s something I’m very grateful for, and my hat’s off to her for all of that.  

I keep coming back to the notion that I’ve had so much luck here.  My job, my friends, this apartment, everything.  And this is just one more thing.  I mean, it’s dumb luck that she was my student.  And that turned into this.  And this – what I initially viewed as just a way to grow as a guitarist – is turning into a way for me to grow as a singer and as performer as well.  

I mean, it’s crazy when I think about it.  All those years playing in metal bands, not once did ever go anywhere near a microphone. And now, several months shy of my 40thbirthday (#fml) I’m going to be singing in Yiddish in Berlin? “Well, Suszyn, *chuckle* you just can’t predict baseball.”

Well, like I said way back in the beginning, I’ve got a million things going on.  But this post is already getting long.  So I’ll just stick with the music theme a little longer and then wrap it up.  And hopefully I’ll be able to write more again sooner than later.  #fatchance

So as I’m nearing 40 (did I mention fml?), Joschka just turned 30.  And to celebrate, he rented a literal castle for the festival gang. Now, when I say a literal castle, I mean in the German sense.  That is to say, a mansion on grounds which used to be what we’d call a castle.  It still has stone walls around it, but the stone fortification/home in the middle was replaced by a fancy house built in fifteen-hundred-something.  

Anyway, an incredibly cool place to spend a long weekend.  And will all the festival folks, which is always a blast. Especially since all the festivals are cancelled this year.  But even if not, it’s so much nicer to sleep in a bed than a tent.  But I digress.  

It was a great time in so many ways, but I’ll stick to the music aspect, as promised.   So one thing with this group, they always love when I break out the guitar.  Which usually happens around a fire or a living room at like three in the morning. 

So one night, at around 3am, several of us are outside, drinking around the fire pit.  And of course I break out the guitar, upon request. Now what normally happens is, if they know the song, they sing along.  If not, some people listen, some people chat and that’s how it goes.   But this year, for the first time – with anybody, not just them – I decided to try out a Yiddish song.  

I opted for a song called Papirossn, which means ‘cigarette.’ It’s a sad ballad about a poor urchin trying to sell cigarettes on the street.  Now, in my opinion, it’s a very beautiful song, even if it’s a bit of a heartbreaker.   But it seemed like a good time for it, late at night, drunk, around a fire.  And I already knew that they dig the Irish folk songs I do.  And while it’s dressed up differently, Klezmer folk music is not actually all that different from Irish folk.  So I figured, the fuck not?

Anyway, the strangest thing happened.  I started to play.  And I should add, I didn’t introduce the song.  I didn’t say it was Yiddish or anything at all.  I just played.  And they all fell silent, as if in a trance.  And as I sang, they just sat and listened, not moving, not making a sound. And when I’d finished, they were like, “Wow, that was beautiful.”  (Or something to that effect; we were all drunk, so what do I remember?).  

The point is, that had literally never happened before.  Not with any song.  Not with a German song or an Irish song or an English song.  Not with nothing.  But this song, that grabbed them somehow.  אָט דאָס אַלטע ליד פֿון דער אַמאָליקער יידישער גאַס This old song from the Yiddish streets of long ago.  

What can I say?  That was a really special moment for me.  There’s really only two people I can even speak Yiddish with.  Bartek, obviously.  And Akivele, with whom I speak far less frequently.  But apart from them, I’m kind of on my own with this language. And yet, I’m discovering a different way to share this, my heritage, with people.  I can do it through music.  

And it’s beautiful, you know?  I dunno, maybe I’m reading too much into all this.  But I feel like it’s not automatic that it should be this way.  I mean, they – my friends, the people here who love me and care about me – they could have the attitude, “Well, sure Dave’s Jewish, but it’s not important.”  Or, “OK, a Jewish song, an Irish song, as long as it swings.”   

But it’s more than that. They open their hearts to it.  And maybe it’s reciprocal, you know?  Maybe they’re responding to me opening my own heart; which I’m clearly doing, when I take a chance and play this music for people. But the fact remains, they do open their hearts to it.  

Because it’s one thing when you make the effort, when you go out of your own way, when you go the extra mile to assimilate to and embrace their culture, in this strange land in which you live.  Then it’s easy to say, “Well, yeah, he’s just like us.”   

But when you step outside of that.  When you show how you’re different, when you choose to highlight what you don’thave in common.  When they open their hearts to thatand embrace you for it.  That’s pretty fucking special.  

And all I can say is, I’m grateful to have such people in my life.  I count myself lucky to have found such people.  Because there’s a loneliness to playing these old Yiddish tunes, tunes which come from a world that doesn’t exist anymore.  ס׳איז נאָך אַ מין פֿון שלעפּן גלות But the burden is a little lighter when you’ve got friends like I’ve got…

זײַ געזונט

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
26 April, 2020

Quarantine, Week 6.  Accepting the New Normal.  No longer laying in bed all day burning through seven seasons of Deep Space Nine. Though this could be because I’ve finished the series, and there’s nothing else of that quality and volume to sustain me.  But I miss The X-Files.  If I had X-Files (first six seasons, let’s be clear), it’s possible I’d still be in bed watching TV all day.  

Have given up on “dressing up” for work.  First two weeks of quarantine, I routinely wore a tie or a jacket with a button shirt.  Now it’s just a clean T-Shirt and pajama pants.  

In films, people demonstrate their affection for one another by means of physical contact.  Where the bond of affection is particularly strong, they often seem to touch their lips to the lips of their counterpart.  Did we also used to do this?  I no longer remember.

Have noticed another curious custom portrayed in films. People from western cultures grab each other by the hand when first meeting.  A curious act.  Don’t they know how dangerous that can be?  People from some Eastern cultures are portrayed as bowing at the waist rather than employing this hand-grab.  But travel to the East is forbidden, so perhaps this is only myth or legend.

Have noticed a number of curious establishments on the street between my home and the supermarket.  In looking through the window, one can see a large room filled with many tables and chairs.  But these establishments are never open, the lights are always dark.  What was their purpose in the Before Time?

On Youtube, one can find videos of one’s favorite band performing their music.  They can be seen to be playing in large halls, filled with people.  A reckless act to be sure.  One wonders, how many of those people, crushed together, breathing on one another, have been taken by The Sickness.  

From the news, we see clips of the President in America.  He wears neither mask nor gloves.  He seems to be without fear.  Perhaps he is some kind of Übermensch, a super man.  We should be thankful that the leader of such a large and prosperous nation is so constituted.  Perhaps we can draw strength from his example.  He seems to be not very well-spoken.  But surely this is an act.  It gives the illusion that any idiot could run the country.  And if any idiot can run the country, surely we, as individuals, can manage our own small lives.

Seriously though, I do seem to be finding something of a groove in all of this.  And by groove, I mean ways of keeping busy and productive. Perhaps too busy.  Indeed, I may have bitten off slightly more than I can chew. 

As you know from previous posts, I’m reading that family history book with Bartek and working up a translation alongside our readings.  I have my regular Torah readings.  My job, thankfully.  I’ve also decided to use this time to get my Latin back into shape.  Just trying to do a little bit every day; or at least most days. But it’s a project that requires dedication and commitment.  My textbook is 18 units, and with all the exercises at the end of each unit, I need about a week per chapter.  So to see this through to completion, we’re talking about 3-4 months dedicated study.  After which I’ll have to, you know, actually find time to read some fucking Latin because otherwise what’s the point?

Also, I don’t even like Latin.  In fact, I rather detest it.  But I’m sort of ashamed of the fact that I learned it once and my abilities have dwindled to the point of near-uselessness.  And also, I’m always bringing up Latin in my classes by way of explaining both vocabulary and grammatical structures.  If I’m gonna do that, it would be nice if I actually had some little command of the language.

Then there’s another translation project.  One of my students has written whodunit.  She’s about to self-publish on Amazon.  And I sorta joked with her that if she needed a translator, I’d be happy to do it…for a fee. I was mostly joking, but she jumped at it.  Said she’d been looking for a translator actually.  I told her my German was hardly up to it.  But she said that didn’t matter.  What mattered was that the English should be good and “form the heart.” So I said why not, I could give it a try.  

She sent me five pages. I translated a little over one page and sent it to her, just to make sure it wasn’t a total waste of time. But she was quite pleased.  So I’ll go ahead and finish these five pages.  At which point, she’ll send it to her editor/friend who is a native German but lives in New York.  If it passes his inspection, I may well have a monumental task on my hands.

Which, if nothing else, will be great for my German.  I mean, what better way to learn a language than to translate a whole f’ing book? But it’s a bear of a job, because like I said, my German is shit.  Fortunately, she’s quite serious about this “from the heart” business.  In other words, she doesn’t want a literal translation, something of which I’m not capable.  All I have to do is get the general sense/feel of her text and re-write it in my own English.  Easier said than done, to be sure.  But doable. Doable with a shit-ton of time and effort.

So we’ll see what happens. Maybe her editor/friend will shoot it down and that will be the end of it.  But first I’ve got to get through these five pages.  Which would be enough if I had nothing else going on…

There’s also the French translation of my fairy-tale story, which Anne is doing the illustrations for.  She’s now also helping me edit my French translation. We try to meet once a week or so to work on it.  It’s more work for her than me, and truth be told, it goes pretty fast when we’re working together.  We’re about a third of the way through, I guess.  But it’s still another commitment.  

It’s also rather humbling and helps me empathize with my students.  In one breath she’ll say it’s very good and my French is quite strong before going on to correct half my verb tenses and prepositions.  It’s good to be on the other side of the teacher’s desk for a change.  Keeps you honest.

Speaking of being on the other side of the teacher’s desk.  I read in The Forward that the Yiddish Cultural Center in Paris is offering online mini-courses during the mageyfeh-tseit, the plague times.  I mentioned it to Bartek and he was quite interested.  So we signed up for one.  It meets this weekend and next, Saturdays and Sundays, 90 minutes each time. The class will be focused around the text of a play.  

I’m quite excited about it, but it’s added an intensive reading load to these next two weeks. The play itself is fascinating. So far, it’s told from the perspective of some Nazi soldiers in the Sudetenland in 1938-9 or so.  So obviously it’s dark as shit.  I’ll have more to say about It after the class.  Stay tuned.

And if that weren’t enough. I may have mentioned that back in the early 80’s, my uncle performed an in-depth interview of my great-grandmother, then in her 90’s.  It’s pretty amazing.  She tells her whole life story, from her childhood in Tsarist Russia, to coming to America and then all that happened here.   It’s nothing short of incredible.

Anyway, she periodically lapses into Yiddish.  Sometimes it’s just a word here or there, but sometimes it’s whole sentences or even short stories.  My uncle wrote up a transcript of the interview, but when she speaks Yiddish he either just transliterates a word or else just writes “(Yiddish)” if it’s a longer passage.  

So for a long time, I’ve had the idea that I’d like to go through it and pick out all her Yiddish.  Try to translate as much of it as I could.  But until now, I’ve held off for two reasons. Primarily, I was waiting for my Yiddish to be good enough; or to feel that it was so.  But also, I wanted to have a pair of properly good headphones so I could hear her as clearly as possible.

Well.  I do finally feel like my Yiddish is up to the task. And since I’m not spending a dime at bars or restaurants, I decided to splurge on a pair of properly nice, good quality over-ear headphones.  No more excuses.  

So this last week, I finally got started on that project.  Let’s call it a labor of love.  It’s not easy, for more than a few reasons.  But I’m having success.  Not 100% success, but real success nonetheless.  It’s rewarding both intellectually and on a personal level. I’ll not say more about it here since it’s still so early in the process.  But I’ll surely have more to say about this in the coming months.

And then there’s the project that hasn’t even started yet.  As I’ve previously written, I make it a point of doing a Shakespeare sonnet with each of my advanced classes.  Anyway, as my last group was ending a few weeks ago, we did this.  And at the end, one of my students said something like, “You know, in school we read a Shakespeare play (in English) and I really loved it.  And I swore that Shakespeare would always be a part of my life.  But unfortunately, I haven’t been able to do that.  So I’m really glad we read this.”  Which was nice to hear.

So I contacted her privately and said that if she was interested, we could choose a play and read it together.  She was pretty excited about this, and so after this Yiddish mini-course is over, we’re going to read Lear.

Now to be sure, there’s a selfish element to this.  I also have always wanted more Shakespeare in my life.  From doing it in High School with Connor, to having my prof in England who constantly quoted Shakespeare for every possible situation, I’ve always loved it. But I’ve never found the time or effort to actually do anything about it.  Now though, if I have someone to read with, then that should be sufficient motivation.  So yeah, on some level, this is very much for me.  

But also, and not insignificantly, there’s a pay-it-forward element at work here.  Or, to put it another way, of trying to follow the example of those who have given me their time.  For five years, Daitz had me over to his own home, every Saturday morning to read Homer. And now, Phil gives me his time to read Herodotus with me.

And I’m sure there’s a selfish element for both of them as well.  It gave Daitz a chance to pass on his knowledge, and to keep Homer alive in his own home and in his life.  Phil too enjoys our readings.  It wasn’t or isn’t “charity,” you know?  But true as that is, it they didn’t “have to” do it.  They both could have chosen to interact with other academics, other professionals.  Perhaps that would have been more rewarding than shepherding a less-learned student through these difficult texts.  To engage with an academic equal rather than to “teach,” as it were.  

But they did choose to do that, freely, with love and with joy.  And that’s an example I’d like to follow.  Now, to be sure, I’m not a professional Shakespeare scholar.  I don’t have the relationship with Shakespeare that Daitz had with Homer.  I don’t have the relationship with Shakespeare’s language that Phil has with Greek in general.  

But I am a native speaker, who has studied and read a bit of Shakespeare over the years.  And so, in theory, I should have something to offer a native German speaker who hasn’t read The Bard since her school days.  That said, you’d better believe I’ll be digging into the ol’ Spark Notes.  Gotta come correct, know what I mean?  Anyway, the plan is to start that in a little over a week.  

So that’s what I’ve got going on now.  It’s a lot. And truth be told, I do feel like I’m burning the candle at both ends a bit here.  But it’s better than laying around watching Star Trek all day.  And I do genuinely love all these things I’m working on. Except maybe Latin.  No, I definitely don’t love Latin.  But it needs to happen.  And it’s happening.  

I watched Unorthodox. Very well done and worth watching. I highly recommend it.  People keep messaging me about it, because of the Yiddish.  So just a few words on that.  It’s Chasidic Yiddish, which is more than a little different from the YIVO “standard” Yiddish which we studied at Weimar.  It’s also quite different from Bubby’s Yiddish or the Yiddish in the family Memorial Book, both of which are quite secular.  Or, as secular as a language riddled with loshen-koydishe werter– holy words – can be.  On the other hand, it has the virtue of being the only true lebedike sprach, the only true “living” variant of the language.  

Bartek and I had a long shmoozabout all its idiosyncrasies, all the things, in short, that make it different from the language we know and work with. But before you can even get into those things, you’ve got to deal with the accent, just the way they pronounce the words you already know.  It’s so different!  

I felt like I needed all four hours of that series before I could finally begin to lock in to their dialect. And just as I was starting to finally get a feel for it, it was over.  Kinda like French, every time I go to that country.  But all in all, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  And getting a window into chasidishwas a trip.

What else?  A few weeks back, I met one of my former students in the park.  I invited her for a game of catch.  A pretty good social distancing sport, since you’ve got to stand quite far apart.  

Playing catch in this country is weird.  Nobody here has grown up with it.  It’s like a strange novelty to them.  But credit to this kid, she picked it up super fast.  I thought she was catching quite well from the outset.  I mean, she was.  But she showed me the inside of her forearm when were done and it was all bruised up from all the balls she didn’t quite get to.  

And it took her some time to learn how to throw properly.  Like, in the beginning, I said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you throw like a girl.”  Well, she did.  But again, to her credit, by the end, she was winging it in their pretty good.  No joke, I was legit impressed.  

At one point, some lady walks by and starts talking to my friend.  When it was clear the lady wasn’t leaving anytime soon, I walked over.  And in German, she’s like, “This game you’re playing, is it British or American?”  Which like, come on, lady.  Seriously? So I told her, over the sound of my breaking heart, that it was American.  So then she asks, again in German, are you both American?  I mean, she had just been talking with my German friend. So, in German, I’m like, “She’s not, I am.”  And the lady was just like, and I don’t remember the adjective, but she basically was like, “What a strange/interesting game.”  Sure, lady.  You can go away now.

Whatever.  The point is, I was finally able to get a game of catch in.  And more than that, by the end, my friend was throwing and catching like a real person. I wasn’t holding her hand, so to speak. We were really throwing the ol’ apple around.  Man, that was good for the soul, I tellya.  Hopefully we’ll do that again soon.

I went for a walk the other day.  Beautiful weather, so I went for a walk.  And I discovered that I don’t like it here half so much as I liked it in Köpenick.  Don’t get me wrong, my commute is a thousand times easier.  Or, it was, when I had a commute.  And Joschka is a stone’s throw away, which is great.  And I love having my own place, and the apartment itself is wonderful. But the area?  Meh.

What I loved about Köpenick was, well it was the water.  But beyond that, you could walk into nature.  Real, wild nature.  Here, you get manicured parks.  Which are lovely.  If you’re into that sort of thing.  I’m discovering that I’m not.

Let me see if I can explain this.  I much prefer a bit of civilization imposing itself on wild nature to a beautifully manicured park imposing itself on civilization.  Here’s an example.  In Köpenick, I would be wandering through the woods and suddenly stumble upon some railroad or tram tracks.  And that was excitingsomehow.  

Like, you’re alone, just you and the trees.  And all of a sudden, here are these tracks.  Whence do they come?  Whither do they go?  What people, upon what journeys, might come rumbling through your world?  Look left, look right.  Mystery in both directions.  There’s a peaceful quiet, wind in the leaves, birds singing.  And then, for an instant, the mighty iron horse breaks the silence, in all its majesty and power.  Then it’s gone.  And you’re alone again, with the trees and the birds.  It’s almost like a fairy tale.  

But parks?  They’re filled with people.  They have defined borders, clear paths.  There is no mystery.  And you just know, it’s not far in any direction back to the real world. It’s not an escape.  It’s a zoo.  No, really.  It’s a zoo. Everybody is watching everybody else. Look at that couple kissing over there. Look at the children kicking a football. Look at the old man on the bench or the idiots playing Frisbee or the group of friends having a picnic. 

Is it better to have parks than to not have parks?  Of course. I suppose I should be thankful that I have a really nice park around the corner, and two more 15 minutes walking. But they just feel artificial.  And there’s no chance of being alone.  

So yeah, I miss Köpenick. I miss the realness, the nature, the solitude.  Most of all, I miss the water.  

On the other hand, there’s a Lebanese place around the corner, where you can get realfalafel, with pickled radishes.  You couldn’t get realfalafel in Köpenick and forget about pickled radishes.  So, you know, there’s that, I guess.

Oh, and here’s a rant. It seems supermarkets have done away with baskets.  Now you musttake a fucking shopping cart.  Presumably as a way of enforcing social distancing. But holy shit fuck my life.  I mean, I hated shopping carts with a passion even before all this.  Everybody is always in everybody’s way.  Moving around becomes a chore, no more just strolling down the aisles.  Plus, it plays tricks on your eyes.  A full basket tells you you’ve bought all you can carry home on your own two feet.  Now, with shopping carts, it’s a fucking guessing game.  Fucking grocery Tetris.  What fresh hell, I ask you?

But also, yes, the supermarkets are open every day (except Sunday, I’ll never be OK with that), and you can usually get most of what you need.  So what am I really complaining about?  It just becomes an exercise in mental discipline, that’s all.  Now, when I enter the store pushing that godforsaken wagon, I just repeat to myself, “Take it easy, Davey.  It is what it is.  Take a deep breath.  It’s out of your control.”  Learning to do that, maybe there’s value in that.  Is what I tell myself as I suppress my rage.  Rage at the unwieldy wagon, rage at the fools not wearing masks or gloves, rage at the fact that this country doesn’t sell chicken thighs – seriously! – or beef with bones in it and so how am I supposed to make beef stock? Deep breaths, Davey.  Deep breaths.

And that’s what this quarantine is all about in the end, isn’t it?  Deep breaths.  Don’t fight what you can’t control.  Be thankful for what you have.  And god willing, it will all be over soon.

So until then,

זײַ געזונט

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
30 March, 2020

Well, we’re really in the shit now, huh?  First of all, I’m healthy, kinahura.  But every time I say I’m healthy, I feel like what I’m really saying is, “Well, I was healthy two weeks ago.  The fuck knows what’s going on inside me today?”  But at this time, I’m fortunate to be able to say I don’t know anybody here who’s infected.  In fact – and not to tempt the Fates – but to this point, Berlin has been doing comparatively well in general.

To the point where I have to wonder if the man-in-the-street is taking this seriously enough.  Joschka assures me that where he is – pretty much the center of the city – is quite dead.  But up here, in my new hood, I’m rather surprised by the number of people I see out and about.  For the last two weeks now, I’ve been wearing rubber gloves whenever I leave the house; and until the other day, I’ve felt like I was the only one.

Friday, on my trip to the supermarket, was really the first time I saw any significant number of people wearing masks and gloves; though still a minority.  I don’t know how much real ‘protection’ rubber gloves offer, but they do have this advantage.  You’re very conscious of wearing them; very conscious of your hands.  The result being, it’s much easier to avoid accidently touching your face.  So there’s that, anyway.

Also, as of Thursday the 19th, we’ve been doing our classes online from home.  And just Friday, my boss got approval from the Arbeitsamt– the local labor department, I guess – to officially offer remote classes and accept new students on that basis.  So at least for the time being, I’m able to work my normal schedule, which is a blessing.

Working from home, though, man.  Don’t get me wrong, it has its advantages, which I’ll come to.  But it feels weird.  Just, I mean, being in the house all day.  You feel like you’re on some kind of lame vacation.  It makes it just a little bit harder to take work seriously. Especially since the current schedule we’ve developed is super lax.

We have instruction from 9-10, 11:30-12:30 and 2-2:30.  If you’re doing the math, that means I’m only actually “working” 2.5 hours a day.  The rest of the time is for the students to work alone on whatever we assign to them, plus “breaks.”  It’s effective, as far as it goes.  Honestly, it’s working much better than I’d anticipated.  But it does contribute to the feeling of “barely working-ness.”

To combat this, I’ve started dressing more formally than I ever did when I was going in to work. You know, they say something about dressing up to work from home makes you feel more serious.  Well, it helps anyway.  Every day, I wear a button-down shirt with either a tie, a vest or a jacket.

On the other hand, some of my students show up looking like total schlubs, in undershirts or whatnot. But it’s not their job.  If I was a student, who knows, maybe I’d be rolling up in my PJ’s.  

I’ve been putting these extended breaks to some practical use.  Trying (and sometimes failing) to get a bit of cleaning done.  But more often, just playing a lot of guitar.  Not really any classical, unfortunately.  It’s still a bit chilly and my fingers don’t behave as well as they do in warm weather.  But I’m adding to my repertoire of Yiddish folk songs, of which I’ve got around ten or so now; some memorized, others I still need my handwritten lyric sheets.

And then there’s the electric guitar.  I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this.  After the first gig with Bibi and Ralf, the café owner was sufficiently pleased that she offered us a regular monthly gig.  We played precisely one of these before the corona-shutdown hit.  But upon learning that we would be playing out on the reg, I decided to purchase an electric guitar.  

Reason being, Bibi and Ralf hold down 99% of the rhythm parts.  So even on the acoustic, I was mostly doing leads, color or bass.  So I thought adding an electric guitar to the mix, especially for what I was doing, could be really cool.  Give things a whole different dynamic.  Those two loved the idea.

I mean, I was prepared to ease the thing in slowly.  To get a month or so of practice, learning the instrument, learning how to fit it in, make it blend with what they were doing.  But they were so excited, they wanted it in the show straight away.

Result being, I used it at our last show, after having had it only a week and precisely one practice session.  All things considered, it worked out pretty well.  There were some glitches, some things that need adjustment, to be sure. But they were quite pleased, which was enough for me.

I said I had to learn the instrument, and that was true.  It’s not like any guitar I’ve ever had.  My primary electric guitar for my whole life has been my beloved Rosie, a Gibson SG Standard.  And that’s really a rock/metal guitar.  My secondary guitar is this gorgeous Jackson Rhoads flying-V, which plays like a dream. But that’s a purely metal instrument. And my starter guitar was a Strat knockoff; a blues/rock guitar.

The point is, all those guitars are solid-body rock guitars and have quite a lot in common.  But the kind of music I’m playing with Bibi and Ralf is not rock.  Well, not by my lights, anyway.  So I thought an entirely different kind of instrument was called for.

To that end, I bought a Gretsch semi-hollow-body.  You know, the kind that has the S-shaped cello-like cutouts in the body; picture something like what Chuck Berry or BB King played.  It’s bigger, the balance is totally different.  More importantly, the sound it makes and the way it plays are quite a departure from my other electrics.  So it really has taken quite a bit of getting used to.

It’s a much rounder, softer sound.  But there’s less sustain and it’s not really made for tearing things up up above the 12thfret.  It was totally the right choice for the Bibi-Ralf stuff.  I mean, I’m really pleased with the way it fits what we’re doing together.

The only problem is, we’re not doing it now.  So I’ve got this beautiful instrument – she really is gorgeous – that’s not the right instrument for the kind of music I want to play at home alone.  Which apparently is Bach.  Back in high school, I had worked up a sort of adaptation of Bach’s Toccata in d-minor, which was pretty cool.  But I’m a better player now than I was then.  So I figured, with all this down time, I should try to learn it properly.

And that’s what I’ve been working on since I’ve been stuck at home.  A lot of my break time goes to that damned piece.  It is not easy, friends.  But it’s bad-fucking-ass, and I’m making progress.  But it’s just a touch frustrating, knowing that Leyke1 – that’s my guitar’s name – just wasn’t made for this kind of playing.  Like finger tapping just doesn’t come off well with this instrument.  But it’s fun anyway, which is the point.

Although, as with so much of what I attempt musically, it has me up against my limits.  I’ve never been particularly good with right hand picking technique.  And this piece sure calls for it.  So on the one hand, that’s a skill I’m trying to develop.  On the other, I’m quite clearly not especially gifted in that department.

One thing that’s suffering as a result of not going into school is my French reading.  Normally, I read French every day on the train.  But now I have no train rides.  Trying to carve out time for that has been difficult. And since we’re in isolation, I also haven’t been able to meet Anne for our conversation exchange.  So my French is getting hit on two fronts.  

Something that’s benefited, though, has been my contact with friends who aren’t in Berlin.  As with so many people, I’ve been doing more Skyping. Catching up with people I normally only see when I’m in the States or with whom I would otherwise chat two or three times a year.  So that’s been nice.

And of course my reading sessions with Bartek (Yiddish) and Phil (Greek) are even easier to arrange now. Those continue to be a source of fun and gratification.  Now here’s something that’s really cool.  I mentioned in my last post that Bartek and I were going to start reading this book about the history of the Shtetl were Art’s side of the family came from.

The first chapter was a brief summary history, from the founding of the town, which first appears in historical documents around 1040, until the tragedies of the second World War. Now to me, all the medieval history was just a jumble of unpronounceable Slavic names.  But for Bartek, who is Polish, this is his personal-national history.

So as we’re reading, he’s like, “This is so cool!  I know this king, I know this city, I know this treaty, that marriage was a really big deal!”  I mean, reading this with him brings the history alive in a way that would not be even remotely possible were I reading this alone.

I mean, this is why I love reading with these guys.  Phil and I met to read some Herodotus on Thursday.  Over something like two hours we got through one page of text.  Because we go off on so many tangents.  Debating the use or meaning of this word or that. Considering how the use of oracles figures into Herodotus’ history and Greek culture in general.  And of course the obligatory side-chatter about baseball. 

In other words, reading with these guys, the language is just the beginning.  I’ve said it before, but it’s such an enriching experience.  I sometimes wonder if I should find a way to go back to school for a PhD, whether Greek or Yiddish or who knows what; never mind the law stuff I’ve written about previously.  But so long as I’m not in school, this is the closest I can get to Academia, to that sort of mental workout.  I don’t just love it, I need it.  So thank the gods for that.

Speaking of baseball, not having it is rough.  The longer I’m cooped up inside, and the nicer the weather gets, all I want to do is go have a catch.  And, just, you can’t.  Even though it’s kinda the perfect social-distancing sport.  I mean, if you’re standing anything like 6 feet apart, you’re doing something wrong.  And the parks are open, which makes it harder to bear.

But I figure, I’m imposing hardcore self-isolation for two weeks counting from my last day going in to school.  So next weekend, maybe I’ll head down to Joschka for a gathering of precisely two people.  To cook, play some games, have a few drinks.  But maybe at that point I can go have a catch too.  If I can find anybody who wants to join, that is.  I guess we’ll see.

One other thing I should add.  Things being as they are, it’s super hard to find a routine, to be productive. I think depression is probably too strong a word.  But we’re all sorta struggling with being stuck inside.  And there are days when it’s way too easy to just open a bottle of something, stay in bed and watch Star Trek for hours on end.

To that end, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but thank God for Torah.  Whether I actually love what I’m reading is beside the point.  In fact, it’s kind of boring right now.  Just a bunch of rules regarding sacrifices to atone for any number of misdeeds.  But there’s a schedule to stick to.  Three days a week, every week.  Read the parsha.  It forces me to get off my ass, to do something, to work.  I’d be lost without it right now.  How about that?  Lost without Torah.  That’s a sentence I would have laughed at for the first 35 years of my life.  But here we are.  Strange times, indeed.

I guess there’s not a whole lot else to say, since, you know, I can’t fucking do anything.  With that in mind, I’ll close this post with a little vignette.  This little story took place when I landed in Nice, back in December, to visit Charlotte for Christmas.  And so, without further ado…


                  “Entschuldigung.  Sprechen Sie deutsch?”  The question caught me off guard for a couple of reasons.  First of all, I was in France.  I mean, yes, I’d just gotten off a flight from Berlin and yes, I was still in the airport.  So maybe this woman had been on my flight; had recognized me at the ticket machine for the Tram.  But also, it was immediately clear from her accent that she herself was not German.  
And look, maybe this is the conceit of the English speaker.  That my first thought should be, “Who speaks German as a second language but not English?” Nevertheless, the thought crossed my mind. 
But also, you know, yeah, I do kinda speak German. “Ja,” I said.  “Kann ich dich helfen?”  ‘Yes, can I help you?’  Turns out she wanted to know if I could show her where the central train station was, in Nice.  I was in Nice, by the way.  In the event, I couldn’t.  I didn’t actually know where the central train station in Nice was.  Best I could do, was to point out the city center on the map and tell her that it almost certainly was “somewhere around here-ish.” 
And I coulda left it there.  But something about this woman made me want to help her. I mean beyond the standard do-a-mitzvah, good Samaritan shit.  First of all, she was with her family; three young kids and her husband.  But more than that, something about this dame was familiar.  I couldn’t quite put my finger on it though.  Was it the face?  The manner of dress?  The hair? Her general bearing? 
Or maybe it was how lost she seemed.  The way she spoke German with an accent.  I mean, you gotta be some kinda lost, to be asking for directions in German, in France; in not your native language in not-even-the-country-of-that-second-language. So what the hell was it, then? Why was I drawn to this woman, if that’s not too strong a word?  Why did I feel so responsible for her and her family?
Then I heard it.  I don’t now remember if it was her talking to her husband, or the husband talking to the kids, or the kids talking amongst themselves.  But I heard it.  I was nearly certain.  They were speaking Hebrew!  Members of the tribe!  
I should say here that I’ve never felt any particular affinity for Israelis.  For me, they’ve always sorta been the weird cousins you see at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, but with whom you otherwise never hang out.  They eat different food.  They have a totally different sense of humor.  And the shit we’re supposed to have in common, all those things, they pronounce the names of those things differently, rendering strange even the familiar.
And that’s all well and fine when I’m in New York and they’re in Tel Aviv.  But here, in France, speaking German with one another, we’re both גרים, gayrim, sojourners, aliens.  In which case, all that American Jew vs. Israeli Jew mishigasgoes out the window.  We’re family.  Family sticks together.  Family helps each other out.
Without letting on anything about my own identity, I told her that I was at least going in that general direction and that if they’d like, we could travel together. And in the meantime, I could text my friend (Charlotte) and try and get some concrete information on how best to reach the train station.
So we board the tram and sort of hang out in the same area without speaking much.  Until I get a message from Charlotte.  Turns out the train station is actually on my way. So I go back to the lady and tell her that; that and also that I’d be happy to bring them there directly.  At which point she was quite thankful. That’s when I decided to the roll the dice.  I looked at her and rather softly said in Yiddish: “Achutz dem, wintch ich eych a freyliche Chanukah.”  And also, I wish you a joyful Chanukah.  It was, after all, the 8thnight.  It was clear she didn’t quite understand me, although she certainly heard the word ‘Chanukah.’  Well, alright, she didn’t speak Yiddish.  I expected as much, but it was worth a shot anyway.  
Which isn’t to say I wasn’t a little disappointed.  I mean, I’d read how, back in the day, Jews from all over Europe could greet each other in Yiddish.  Didn’t matter if you were from France or Germany or Poland or Russia.  Once upon a time, it was a lingua francafor our people.  And there are times when I imagine what that would be like.
And indeed, even here in Berlin, I find myself at times a bit jealous of all the Arabic speakers. Be they from Turkey or Lebanon or wherever.  They can walk into a shop and greet each other with a ‘Salem Alechem.’  Why don’t we have that anymore?  But we don’t, is the point.  And it’s no use dwelling on it.
So seeing that she didn’t speak Yiddish, I tried a bit of Hebrew.  Chag Sameach, I said; Happy Holiday.  This she understood.  She looked at me, with not a little surprise.  Then she drew her head close to mine and looked over both shoulders. Kinda the way people do when they’re about to tell a racist joke.  To see who’s around, if it’s safe to speak.  And she says, in German, ״Bist du Jude?”  Are you a Jew?  I nodded.
At which point her whole body language changed.  She smiled, seemed more relaxed.  Then she went to go find her husband.  On the way, she stopped to talk to her kids.  I could see her gesturing towards me as she spoke to them.  And I could see that their body language now changed as well.  They were smiling at me, no longer keeping their distance.  I was no longer some kindly rando helping with directions.  I was a distant cousin, part of the family.  They didn’t talk to me, exactly.  But they shared space with me in a way that demonstrated total comfort and trust.
Then her husband came up to me, started talking to me.   And he wasn’t so easy to understand, because he spoke German with a heavy Israeli accent.  Didn’t speak English, either; I asked.  Turns out, this dude is the cantor in a synagogue in Berlin.  So now come the standard questions.  Do I go to shul?  Do I keep Shabbos?2  Am I part of the Jewish Community?
Rarely.  Not really.  And not so much.  To these answers he gave me his business card and also the phone number of a woman who heads what I took to be a sort of expat community of Jews in roughly my part of Berlin; mostly Americans and Brits from what I could gather.  And he told me I should get in touch with her. Try to meet these people.
“It’ll be good for you,” he says.  “It’s for young people.”  Young people? I look him dead in the eye and say, “Dude, I’m not that young.”  He looks me dead in the eye and answers the most Jewish answer ever.  In fact, the onlyJewish answer.  He looks me dead in the eye and says, “Are you married?”
Touché, salesman. 
Anyway, we all get off together at the same Tram station.  This station, mind you, is deep underground.  Which means we need to ascend three really quite long escalators to get to street level.  I mention this because, after exiting, it was him and his wife who managed all the luggage for the whole family.  Which is another way of saying that they were moving quite a bit slower than the rest of us. 
What I mean is, they two were with all their bags, while the kids were with me.  And this seemed not the least bit odd; not to the parents, not the kids themselves.  The parents were not the least bit troubled to have me, a stranger, escorting their children.  And the children seemed perfectly at ease being escorted by me, a stranger.  The youngest of the lot was even playing with me on the escalator.  Really, it was no different than if I had actually been a blood relative to this lot. 
When we finally got streetside, we went on a few blocks in this way.  The parents lagging behind with the bags and me keeping pace up front with the kids.  Until finally, they decided to go a different route.
Which was odd. Because they had asked for the train station.  And I was going to walk right past it.  And now they were saying they needed to go a different way.  With no explanation.  I asked the father if he was sure and he said that he was.  So that was that.  We said our goodbyes and that was the last I saw of them.
I have the father’s card.  And I do mean to call that lady he recommended to me.  So who knows?  Maybe our paths will cross again in Berlin some day.  

End Vignette

Well, I haven’t called yet.  It’s been on my mind, but I never quite got around to it.  And now with the plague stuff, it’s obviously out of the question.  I mean, not calling; but meeting.  So I’ll have to wait for things to get back to some kind of normal.  

In the meantime, all I can do is keep on keeping on.  And be thankful that I’ve got my health, and that all those I care about also are – knock wood – healthy.  Thankful also that I can keep working.  And playing guitar.  And reading with Bartek and Phil.  And skyping with my friends all over the world.  All things considered, it could be a helluva lot worse.  

So like I said, I’ll just keep on keeping on.  And dreaming of throwing the ol’ apple around.  One day…

And so I close with my usual closing.  But now, more than ever, please:

זײַט זשע מיר געזונד

  1. Leyke is a Yiddish diminutive of Leah.  I chose that name because, in the Torah, Leah is the less loved sister of Rachel; both of whom wind up marrying Yakov.  I kinda dig her because, all she ever did wrong was be less pretty than her sister.  But she’s loyal and somehow noble.  And under normal circumstances, this would not be the guitar I would choose. But here she is and I love her anyway. []
  2. ]I say ‘shul’ and ‘Shabbos’ because I’m writing in my own English.  But as a German speaking Israeli, he didn’t say ‘shul,’ he said ‘synagogue.’  He didn’t say ‘Shabbos,’ he said ‘Shabbat.’ []

An American in Berlin

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’…

זײַ געזונט

  1. This month will be our second.  Hmm, you know, I should probably write about the first… []
  2. Pun intended.  It is a sea-faring adventure, after all. []
  3. 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. []
  4. Nisht geshtoygen, nisht gefloygen. Not arisen, not flown (to heaven). This is how Jesus is (or was) often referred to in Yiddish. []
  5. 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. []
  6. Hashtag crime of the century. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
15 February, 2020

Mishpucha Edition

The following was mostly written on January 4th, with only a few additions since then.  For whatever reason, I’ve held off on posting it until now.  זײַ מיר מוחל.

Well, Happy New Year. Here we are.  2020.  Time just keeps on moving, don’t it?  But more on that later, perhaps.  So my boss says to me, “Did you have a relaxing holiday?”  He’s British, so when he says ‘holiday,’ he means vacation. “No,” says I.  “Well, did you at least have a nice holiday?” he asks, pushing the issue.  “Yes,” says I.  “Very good,” quoth he.  “And now I shall leave you alone.  I know how you hate to talk in the morning.”  I could hug that man.  If I were capable of displaying emotion.

In any case, both of my answers were truthful.  It was not a relaxing vacation.  But it sure was nice.  I was in Nice from the 24thto the 28th, getting home sometime around 10:30pm.  Then up at 6:30 and it was off to Paris.  Came back on the 31stand went straight to Joschka’s for New Year’s Eve. Got home around 6:30-7:00am.  So yeah, it was not ‘relaxing.’  But it sure was nice.

One of the things I like about going to France, obviously, is the opportunity to, you know, speak some French.  Boy, that was hit or miss, I tellya.  Usually, it takes me a couple of days to get locked in.  And it always seems that I’m just starting to get the hang of things on my last day.  Then, boom, time to leave.  This time was no different.

The first night, Christmas Eve, I show up at Charlotte’s place.  Well, her mom’s place.  Well, it used to be her mom’s place.  Now it’s her sister’s place.  Anyway, I show up on Christmas Eve, and I’m the last one there.  It’s already 8:30, nine o’clock.  So I walk into the kitchen, and it’s Charlotte’s mom, dad, sister, friend and obviously the Big C herself.  And natch, they’re all talking French.

Group situations are always hard.  Socially, yeah.  But linguistically is what I mean here.  It’s always easier to talk one-on-one, when the only person you’re talking to is giving you their full attention, when things can go at your pace, when things are tailored more or less to your level. But in groups, people talk among themselves.  They talk faster.  They use more slang.  They’re not so careful about their pronunciation.  And they don’t slow the whole thing down just for little old you. Which is as it should me, mind you.

And certainly I’ve been in situations where the group will switch to English for little old you. Which you know I hate.  But that’s not even an option with this group, because the English just isn’t there for most of them.  Which I love, in general.  But it’s a hard thing to get dropped in the middle of.  I’m doing my best just to keep up, in terms of following what’s going on around me.  But I’m way too slow at that point to actually join in.  So I just sorta sit there and smile and nod and eat and drink. I mean, could be worse.

But there was a lot of this. Because as you may or may not know, Charlotte is living in Ecuador at the moment, teaching French there.  So she’s only in for the holidays.  Got in the day before I did and left the same day as me.  So now, it’s not just the normal sitch, but it’s actually her first opportunity to catch up with friends and family in person in, gosh, over a year, at least. So they’ve got even more than usual to talk about.  And less that includes me, in many ways.  Again, as it should be.  But it was a challenge.

And believe it or not, the fact that Charlotte is fluent in English actually makes things harder for me in some ways.  No doubt it’s very helpful at times.  But it’s a crutch, for everybody.  For her, if she wants to tell me something, English is the easiest way.  For the others, if they want to communicate something, it’s easier to do it through her.  And for me, if I have a question, I can just go through her as well.  So it sort of disincentivizes everybody to make that effort, you know?

Which isn’t to say I wasn’t involved or didn’t speak any French or that nobody spoke to me in French. Just that it was a touch overwhelming, language-wise, and less French for me as might be expected.  

That said, there’s a lot of love in that room.  Her mom gave me a big old hug when I arrived.  Her dad is always super sweet with me.  Her sister too.  Even her friend, whom I’ve met several times now, is always very nice to me, always makes an effort to chat with me a bit in French.  So I didn’t feel at all like an outsider or less a part of the group. Just that there was a language barrier.

And so it went.  The next day was more of the same, this time with her dad’s family.  The French was a little better than the day before, but my head was still spinning. I did eat fois gras though.  That was a first.  Morally ambiguous at best, but certainly delicious.  And hey, I’m in France, right?

The next night we went out for drinks with her friends.  And that was a bit tougher for me.  I mean, I’ve met these friends.  I like all of them.  They like me.  But again, Charlotte hadn’t been home in over a year, so this was their first chance to all hang out together in quite a while.  Lot of catching up to do.  In that kind of situation, even in English, I’d be a bit left out.  After all, these girls had grown up together.  So it’s catching up on what’s new, but it’s also retelling old stories.  And again, all that’s as should be.  But it did leave me a bit on the outside.  Then add the language barrier on top of that, and I did feel a bit left out.

Not that I’m complaining. I still had a good time.  Just maybe not a great time.  Add to that, by that point I’d now encountered several setbacks with the language. To me, these were embarrassing, though Charlotte the French Teacher assured me I had nothing to feel bad about. But several times that day I’d tried to say say some very basic things, only to not be understood.

That very morning, for example, I was sitting in the kitchen alone, reading the paper on my phone. Her mom (Karine) and her sister (Marion) come in.  Karine asks me what I’m doing.  Je lis (I’m reading).  Quoi tu lis? (What are you reading?).  Le journal (the newspaper).  Quoi?  Le journal. Quoi?  Le…journal.  Quoi?  The…newspaper?  Aaaah, le journal! (Karine).  Aaaah, le jooouuurnal! (Marion).  Oui! Le journal! (me).  What the fuck did I say?1

Then, later, at a café with Charlotte, I tried to order a cup of tea and the waiter had no idea what I was saying.  Finally, that night, out with the girls, I tried to order a glass of grappa and the waitress looked at me like I had three heads.  In both cases, I needed Charlotte to order for me.  I was less than pleased with myself.

Anyway, the first couple of days, I’m having a little trouble getting acclimated.  Only after all this, at the end of the second night, I think, do we finally get to sit down, just the two of us, and play some music. Finally.  And that was great.  Just like old times.  

But really, the next day is when things started coming together.  Charlotte again met some of her friends for coffee.  But instead of staying with them, this time I went for a walk in the old town.  And this was really the first time I was getting any time to myself, which was great in itself.  But also, Nice is fucking gorgeous and the weather was wunder-fucking-schön. Or, err, magni-putain de-fique?.  

In the course of this, I do what I always do in these situations and just started turning down whatever street looked interesting.  This led me up the mountain and, eventually, to the Jewish cemetery. This was not planned; I hadn’t even considered that there might be a Jewish cemetery, though it’s hardly surprising.

Anyway, I’m glad I found it. Very peaceful, very beautiful, it’s up on the mountain overlooking the sea.  It’s a great, if melancholy, spot.  Also rather interesting.  Because as you would expect, most of the stones were in French.  But there was also a decent number in strictly Hebrew, and still others in Polish, in Russian and even in English.  There were also a couple of holocaust memorials, which were quite touching.  

Anyway, the last night was the best.  We did apéro at her dad’s place.  Just me, her, Karine, Marion and Philippe, her dad.  And it was great.  We all played music together and laughed and ate and drank and just had a good time.  I’ll come back to this later.  But for now, it’s enough to say, that was the best night.  Finally, I was feeling at ease, and there was just a lot of love in that room.  

And the best part was, as I said, we all played music together.  This new song that C and I worked up has a whistling section.  So Karine and Marion were whistling, Philippe was playing his bongo drum, I had the guitar and C & I were singing. Everybody was in on it.  And it was great, man.  I mean, I don’t think anybody is buying this record, but we had a blast.

The next day, it was time to go already.  C left early in the morning and so had her parents.  They were all off to Turkey to see her other sister, Chloe.  Chloe, see, is married to a Turkish fella and they live in Istanbul.  And she’s just had a baby.  So they were all off to meet the niece/grandchild.  Which meant that by the time I got up, it was just me and Marion. 

A bit slow going at first, but by the end, we were getting on like a house on fire.  See, she doesn’t really speak English, so we had to get by on only French.  But now, with nobody else around and no safety net, I finally found my feet (or, my tongue?).  So we chatted for a few hours, and it was just fun, you know?

Also, she was shopping for flutes online. I asked her if she played, and she said she used to a bit. But the reason she was shopping was, she had so much fun the night before, but she wished she could have contributed more to the music, wished she could have been more a part of it, beyond just the whistling.

Which itself was kinda funny.  Because I told her C was the same way, back in the beginning.  When we first met, she didn’t sing at all.  She just sat and listened to me sing and play.  But eventually, she got to the point where she wanted to participate as well.  Only then did she start singing with me.  And the rest is history.  Anyway, there was Marion, just like her sister.

And it would be really great if the next time we’re all together, we can have a little bit of flute with our music too.  So here’s hoping that will come to pass.  We also agreed that it would be good for both of us to have more practice with the language. I gather she knows more English than she lets on and that it’s more of a confidence thing.  So we exchanged emails with the hope of maybe doing a bit of language exchange over Skype or whatever.  We’ll see if that actually happens.  But it would be nice, for sure.

And that was Nice.  I hardly got any sleep when I got back to Berlin. It was the seventh night of Chanukah when I got back, so I lit the candles.  Only they kept going until like 3:30am (talk about your Chanukah miracles), and I obvi didn’t want to fall asleep with them still lit.  So yeah, I went to Paris on like three hours of sleep.

Paris.  Yeah, that was great.  But mostly because it was great to see everybody.  Jared, Josh, Amanda, the baby, the parents, Monica.  We ate like kings and drank like idiots.  Or I did, anyway.  To the point where I was laid up the whole second day with a terrible hangover.  That was kind of a waste.  But I did use the opportunity to watch some Jackie Mason on the Youtube.  Which was great in itself, but also, I was able to mine it for all kinds of little Yiddishisms, which was fantastic.  Things that in the past would have gone right past me, now I totally understood.  It not only enriched the comedy, but also my own usable Yiddish.  Hard to argue with that.

The last day, Carol, Paul, Amanda and Sabine flew home.  So it was just me, Jared, Josh and Monica.  We went out for lunch.  At which point, I asked, “Hey, can I buy you guys a drink?  I haven’t paid for a goddamn thing since I’ve been here.” Which was true.  So they agreed.  

We went to a very nice wine bar, whereupon they ordered a not cheap bottle of champagne, plus some extra glasses of wine.  I swallowed hard when the bill came.  “Well guys, thanks for having me along on this trip,” I said.  “This is the least I can do to say thank you.  Well, I don’t know if it’s the least I can do.  But it’s certainly the most I can do.”  

I was joking, of course. I mean, it was expensive.  But when you consider where we were staying and the restaurants we went to, well, it really was the least I could do.  And anyway, I work.  I can afford it.  

We were staying in five star hotels, btw, Place Vendome.  Monica got me a cot in her room, which was great.  Because we just stayed up late each night, drinking wine and talking about how most people are idiots.  I mean, other stuff to.  But that’s usually the main theme.  Anyway, it’s good times.

And then it was back to Berlin.  There was a major transit strike going on in Paris at the time, so I wound up taking a cab to the airport.  And this, my last experience in France, was a win.  Because I get in the car, and start chatting in French with the cabbie.  In fact, we chatted the whole way to the airport, the better part of an hour.  And so, as usual, my last experience, on my last day, and finally – finally– I feel like, yes, I can actually speak French.

And then it was over, and I was back in Berlin.

Joschka and I have a New Year’s tradition of sorts.  We watch this 15-minute film, an old b/w number, called Dinner for One.  Actually, watching this film on NYE is a tradition in this country generally.  But in the course of the film, the main character must drink four glasses each of white wine, champagne, port and sherry.  Thus, our tradition is to have one glass each of those drinks, as the little film unfolds. This year was year four of that tradition.  

We also cook a nice dinner. This year was steak, roasted cauliflower, parsnip purée and a meatball appetizer.   Sometimes we go out after, sometime the party just carries on at his apartment.  

This year, though, Joschel wasn’t feeling so well.  So the drinks were smaller, and after the movie it was just a bottle of champagne between the two of us.  We stayed up til six playing board games and drinking nothing but tea, once the champagne ran out.  I guess some people actually live this way.  Go fig.2

Anyway, I titled this post Mishpucha Edition. ‘Mishpucha,’ as many of you know, is the Hebrew word for ‘family.’   And even as a Yid, I know that Christmas is a time for family.  Now, it goes without saying that one of the hardest things – perhaps the hardest thing – about living in a foreign country is being far away from your family.

Well, Christmas was never a big deal in our house, obvi.  The big family holidays were always Passover (with my mom’s mishpucha) and Thanksgiving (with my dad’s mishpucha).  But my last few years in New York, I started spending Christmas with Flare’s family.  And that was always really special.  And then, when I got to Berlin, well, you notice it, when everybody else is with their families and you’re kind of alone.

Except in Berlin, I’ve never really been alone on Christmas.  My first year here, Cindy invited me to her Xmas party, at which she cooked a duck.  The next year, I was in Nice with Charlotte and her family.  Last year, I was invited to spend the holiday with Margit and her family.  This year, again in Nice, followed by that little jaunt to Paris with Jared and his mishpucha.

I know I’ve written about this before, but it never ceases to amaze me, the way people take me in and make me a part of their family.  I’m always touched, filled with wonder, and yeah, even surprised.  I mean, you just can’t take these things for granted, you know?

Look, I’ve known Jared and the whole clan since I’m, what, fifteen?  We grew up together.  But not just me and Jared.  All of us. I’ve watched Amanda graduate college, get jobs, be very successful professionally, and now, have a baby. When I met them, Carol was still walking around on her own.  Now I push her wheelchair and help her with her drinks.  I’ve been enjoying steaks and sipping fine scotch and now cognac with Paul, having those man-to-man conversations in New York steakhouses, on his roof deck, in Italy and in France.  In fact, sitting in Paul’s hotel room and sipping Armagnac, just the two of us, was one of the highlights of this short trip.

Jared and I lived together for ten years.  And in the course of those ten years, we walked – sometimes drunkenly stumbled – from boyhood to become men.  I think that for each of us, who we are now has in some way been shaped by the other. And now last year I was at his wedding. 

They say you choose your friends but you don’t get to choose your family.  Well, maybe we chose to be friends, long ago.  But we’re family now.  And that won’t change any more than it could with my own blood relations.

But if I’ve known the Morgensterns for nigh on 25 years, the situation with Charlotte and her family is quite the opposite.  We only met in in 2013.  I met her parents that same year.  Philippe, when he visited her in NY, Karine when I visited C in Nice for the first time that summer.

Now obviously, C and I are very close.  At the moment, it’s the sort of close where you talk on the phone for two hours once every couple of months, but when you see each other you pick up exactly where you left off.  But there’s no less love there, for all that.

Though, that’s not the whole story either. Cos see, she reads every one of these posts; leaves a comment on most of them. In a way, we communicate through this blog. She once said to me, “I read you.” She didn’t say, “I read your blog.” She said, “I read you.” And every time I sit down to write, some small part of it is for her. So even if we only talk every couple of months, we’re more connected than that.

>> Interpolation: It’s worth mentioning here just how much C herself makes me feel like family, the level of trust, comfort, whatever you want to call it, that exists between us. As mentioned, my time in Nice overlapped almost entirely with hers.  Basically the whole time she was there, I was there too.  And I maybe felt a little guilty about that, even though we had coordinated the dates together.

After all, this was her first chance in a long time to catch up with friends and family.  Who would want to be burdened with a guest the entirety of that time?  So I apologized, if that’s the right word.  I said something like, “I hope I’m not in your way too much,” or “I’m sorry if I’m a burden on you here, taking up all of your time.”  Something like that.

To which she replied, something along the lines of, “Don’t be ridiculous.  I’m happy you’re here.  I want you here.  You are in no way a burden.”   And she meant that.  That’s where our friendship is at.  She has a finite time with her childhood friends and family, and she wants me there for all of it, to share in it, to be a part of it.

Every minute I get with my family now, every minute I get with my friends from home now, it’s precious. And every minute I get with Charlotte, it’s no less precious.  And it’s that way for her too.  What can I say?  I love that bitch.  End Interpolation: <<

And while I’ve grown up with Jared’s family, I can count the number of times I’ve spent time with C’s family one two hands; maybe one.  And yet they treat me as if I’ve been there all along.  There’s just so much love.  

I can try to describe all this, but I know I’ll fail to capture it.  Better would be to give an example.  This trip to Nice was only the third time I’ve ever met Marion.  The first was on a roadtrip we did, back in 2016, I think – Me, C, Philippe and Marion.  The second time was Xmas, two years ago.  And we’ve never spoken outside of these two encounters.  

Anyway, like I said, my last morning in Nice this year, it was just the two of us, me and M.  And like I said, it was slow going at first. But I think we bonded a bit.  We talked about how we’re both uncomfortable in group settings, how we can both find it difficult to talk to people in groups. How we’re both much better one-on-one. We also talked about language, about France, made plenty of jokes, and so on.  It was a good time.

The point is, like I said, it was only the third time we’d met; and the parents, not many more times than that.  Anyway, we’re at the door, saying our goodbyes.  And I say, Merci pour tout, thanks for everything. And she says, De rien?, you’re welcome?  It was definitely a question.  Mais, pour quoi?, But, for what?, she added.  Pour l’hospitalité, pour le lit, pour…tout, for the hospitality, for the bed, for…everything. And she just sorta looks at me like I have three heads.  So I say, On dit merci, non?, One says ‘thank you,’ no?  To which she just sorta rolls her eyes and says, Ouais, mais pas avec famille.  Yeah, but not with family.  

Well, what can you say to that?

It’s hard being so far away from your family.  But it’s a little bit easier when you’ve got families on this side of the ocean too. Who could ask for a better Christmas (or Chanukah) gift?

זײַ געזונט

  1. It reminded me of Abbot and Costello’s Who’s on First.  C: I throw the ball to who?  A: Naturally.  C: Now you ask me.  A: You throw the ball to Who?  C: Naturally. A: That’s it.  C: SAME AS YOU!  SAME AS YOU!  (If you don’t know Who’s on First, a) have you been living under a rock? and b) go watch it, now. []
  2. Although I gotta say, waking up on January first without a hangover ain’t the worst thing in the world. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
24 December, 2019
Lech Li’cha Edition

Oh hey.  It’s been a while.  Yeah, I don’t even know when the last time I posted was.  But I moved into the new apartment the last weekend of October, and tbh it’s been kind of a whirlwind since then.  The first three weeks, I felt like I was buying something new almost every day.  Which was kinda draining, I ain’t gonna lie.

See, it’s a funny thing, living with roommates.  Well, obviously.  But I mean, when you move in with roommates who are already living in the apartment, there’s a lot of stuff that’s just there, you know?  Like all the stuff in the kitchen, for example.  But also, little things, that you might not even be aware of until, oh shit, where’s the whosie-whatsit?

So like, I had to stock the kitchen.  With food, yeah.  But also, pots and pans.  And cutlery. And paper towels.  And a French press, because when people come over, apparently they like to drink coffee, and all I had was my one cup stove-top espresso maker. And spices.  All the spices.  And not just spices, but salt and pepper mills.  

Then, you want to hang something and you realize you ain’t got no hammer.  Or you buy something from Ikea and you realize you ain’t got no screwdriver.  Nor a toilet brush.  Or something to hold your toothbrush.  And garbage cans.1

Anyway, for like three weeks, it felt like I was stopping off somewhere every day on my way home to pick something up.  Sometimes it was something biggish, like a stock pot.  Other days, nothing more than a mason jar at the dollar store.  But every day, man.  It was kinda exhausting, really.

And does it ever end? This week, after receiving two bottles of wine as gifts, I realized I now had five bottles of wine just taking up space on my kitchen counter.  So off I went to the hardware store, to buy a wine rack.  Although I have to say, I do feel rather adulty, having a (albeit half-filled) wine rack.2

But at least the place is starting to feel a little Dave-d up.  I hung a print of the Brooklyn Bridge going into lower Manhattan, the old neighborhood.  I’ve got my desk set up the way I like it.  Got the kitchen the way I want it.  I even hung a mezuzah on the doorframe which leads to the living room.  So it’s coming together.

Changing gears now, German. I’ve written plenty before about how I’ve never formally studied the language, how I learn from my friends and the city in general.  How that’s largely by design.  How my goal is to be able to communicate with – and sound like – my friends.  Well, that’s been largely theoretical until now. Then, a few weeks ago, it hit me in the face.

What happened was, I finally made an appointment to see an allergist.  They ran some tests, after which they said, “Holy shit, you’re super allergic to like everything.”  Yes, thanks, I know.  So they put me on a shot regimen.  Only, instead of showing up every few weeks for shots, I have to take a pill.  Every blessed day.  For like three years.3

Oh, and btw, the appointments (there were three) cost me nothing out of pocket.  The first 30 days of pills cost me nine (9) euros.  The next ninety days of pills cost me nothing. Zero.  Zilch.  Nada.4  Even if I want to leave this country, I don’t know how I can.  But that’s for another day.

Anyway, German, was the point.  Nobody in the office really speaks English.  Not the actual allergist and not the three nurses.  Which can be a bit tricky, when you’re dealing with medical vocabulary, but I managed.  

Right, so at the first appointment, I was given the allergy test by one of the nurses, a young girl in her early twenties, I’d wager.  Very nice. But see, she spoke with this very formal, very polished hochdeutsch.  In other words, the formal language as it’s taught in schools and used in workplace environments.  Which is to say, very much not the German I use in my every day life.

So she speaks fancy-pants German, though in fairness, rather slowly and very clearly.  And at one point, she asks me a question that I don’t understand.  So I say, “Sorry, I don’t understand.  What do you mean?”  And she just looked at me with this disappointed face, and with a voice full of pity says, “Oh, du sprichst nicht so gut deutsch?”  Well, I thought I did, thank you very much!  But now I’m just fucking ashamed.  So thanks for that.  At which point she re-worded the question as if she were talking to a fucking child. Yeah, OK, now I got it. Thanks.  And also, let’s not even bother with the rest of the test, since I’m just gonna jump in front of a bus when I get outta here anyway.

Well, obviously I didn’t jump in front of a bus.  And two days later, I was back, to discuss the results of the test and to learn about my new med regimen.  But this time, I got a different nurse.  A dude, roughly my age.  And this guy speaks with a pretty serious Berlin accent.  I mean, this is the Berlin equivalent of our Vinny Bagadonuts, you know?  So he’s talking slang, he’s mushing his words together, he’s talking a million miles an hour. And I’m just like, Oh, thank gods. Somebody I can understand!

But really!  Like he spent about 20 minutes explaining all the rules of this new medication to me.  When I can take it, with what, time of day, eating and drinking rules, circumstances under which I shouldn’t take it, what to do if I have an adverse reaction, the whole nine.  And in mittendrinnen, he’s asking me about New York, what do I think of Berlin, what do I do, all that.  And I’m asking him where he grew up, what he thinks of Berlin.  I mean, we’re even cracking jokes.  Like, I was just totally at home talking to this guy.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.  After all, I teach English.  I’m always explaining the difference between formal and informal, the difference between the written language and the spoken language, between registers.  I know that this is a thing.

I’ve even experienced it on some level with French.  I’m very comfortable with the formal written language, but struggle with the spoken language.  But when the formal language I know also happens to be 150 years old, you tend to feel the difference in age more than register.  And since formal spoken French hews closer to what I read, I’m more at home with formal spoken French anyway.

So even though this should have been no surprise to me in theory, it was actually quite shocking. To discover firsthand how different formal and informal German are.  How different is the language I speak with my friends from that which you hear from an educated medical professional.

And it was a bit of a comeuppance, too, you know?  Like, let’s be honest.  On the one hand, I’ve always sort of looked down my nose at the formal, regulated, “artificial” (by my lights) hochdeutsch.  And on the other hand, I’ve been taking a sort of perverse pride in how far I’ve come with this language on my own, with no formal training or education.  Like, I’m probably guilty of puffing out my chest a bit, when I say, “Nah, I’ve never taken any classes.  I just keep my ears open and learn from my surroundings.” 

Haha, well fuck you, Davey boy. That’s all well and good, until you go to the doctor, and the nurse looks at like you like you’re a fucking idiot. Guess I had that coming, didn’t I?

But from a linguistic perspective, it’s genuinely fascinating.  Like, they really are two distinct languages – or, at least dialects. And there’s an upside to this too. Namely, it probably makes me a better teacher.  Or, at least, a more empathetic one.  

I was talking with a couple of my more advanced students a little while back.  And they’re doing quite well in class.  They’re really mastering the grammar, improving their vocab and just generally getting better at speaking and understanding the language.

And they were telling me that they watched a TED Talk with Paul, the other teacher.  And that they felt like they could barely understand it. It was a real setback for them, or so they felt.  Like, they were under the impression that they were really making progress.  And then they watched this lecture, and it was almost like back to square one.  

So I told them this story, about what happened at the allergist.  And they were genuinely relieved.  They were like, “Wait, this happens to you to?”  Fuck yeah, it happens to me.  And they didn’t feel so bad anymore.  So that ain’t nothing, I guess.

In other language news, the Yiddish reading with Bartek continues.  And it continues to be great.  We’ve moved on from the Itzik Manger poetry and we’re now reading our second short story by Shalom Aleichem.  Which itself is real progress.  Because I remember that before this summer’s Yiddish class, I tried taking a look at some of his stuff.  And I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.  Even though I could listen to that radio program or read the Forvarts, Shalom Aleichem’s literature, was a bridge to far.

And now we’re reading it. To be sure, I absolutely need a dictionary.  And I think I speak for both of us when I say, I don’t think I could manage it alone. There’s a lot of stuff that only becomes clear when we talk it through together.  But be that as it may, here I am, reading Shalom Aleichem.  And enjoying the shit out of it, btw.  I mean, he’s great.  Great story teller, great sense of humor.  

Added bonus of doing this with Bartek is, he’s Polish.  So a lot of the Slavic words, and especially the Polish ones, he brings insights that I just don’t have access to.  Added sub-bonus to this, I have a couple of Polish students in my beginner class now. So rarely – very rarely – I drop a Polish word here and there.  Which always seems to impress.  “How do you know that?”  “Meh, I know things.”  It’s fun, you guys.

So I said I hung a mezuzah, as part of the Dave-ing up process.  Which is perhaps a weird thing to say.  After all, I’ve never hung a mezuzah before.  Not when I lived with Jared, but also, we never had one in my parents’ house either.  But it seems more important here.  Part of that whole “schlepping goles” thing, I guess.  

But I like knowing it’s there.  Just seeing it hanging in the doorway makes me feel (oddly) contented.  Even though I don’t “use” it.  What I mean is, every time you enter the room, you’re supposed to “kiss” the thing.  Actually what you’re supposed to do is, kiss your fingers and then touch your fingers to it. I don’t do that.  Because I’m not “religious.”  Ich bin nisht keyn gleybiker, ich bin a weltlicher. I’m not a believer, I’m secular. But somehow that doesn’t matter.  This is something we’re supposed to do, hanging the mezuzah.  So I did it. I even said the bruchahwhen I hung it.  But that’s the end of it.  It’s there, and I’m happier for it.

My boss took us all out for dinner, as a sort of thank-you slash holiday celebration.  We went to a very nice Italian joint.  The food was great, as was the night out.  I mean, everybody I work with is great, but we don’t usually socialize outside of work.  This was a nice chance to do that.  

Apart from that, he said some very nice things to me.  “You know, Dave, sometimes I think you think I don’t appreciate you.  But you’re really a wonderful teacher.  I heard it again today.”  From some students, he meant.  Because we also had a holiday party in the school, and he made his rounds.  But the way he said it, it was very genuine, from the heart.  It was really nice to here.  Also, he got me one of those fancy rabbit-looking corkscrews and a bottle of wine. Because he knows me.  And he wished me a happy Chanukah.  He’s not religious either, but we both appreciate having another member of the tribe around, and that ain’t no joke.

In other news, Joschka and I went to his hometown the first weekend of December.  There’s a big Xmas market there every year and the whole festival gang turns out.  His hometown crew, but also the Bavarians.  The Xmas market is whatever, but you can’t pass up an opportunity to get everybody together in one place.

Naturally, it was a good drunken time.  But really, I love those clowns.  And that’s the word.  I’ve said it before, but there’s so much love in the room with those people.  Ich hob gefunen an oytzer af der velt.  I’ve found a treasure in the world, would be a fair translation.  

So that’s where things are at, more or less.  To be sure, there’s more to say.  But it’ll have to wait until next year.  That said, I started a post shortly after I moved in to my new digs.  Only, I never finished it.  So I’m going to append it here.  What follows was written sometime around the beginning of November…

>> Welp, here I am, writing from my new room in my new apartment.  Kind of a big deal, you guys.  And I gotta say, living alone kinda suits me.  No surprise there, I guess.  But also, this is myplace.  I mean, I get to make it my own.  Set the kitchen up the way I want it.  Decorate according to my own style.  And it’s coming along.  Still a few things I need to pick up, still a few things that need taking care of.  But all in all, I’d say I’m settling in nicely. 

The move was surprisingly easy and, even more surprisingly, quite fast.  I had three friends help me, plus Marco and Lucy helped bring things downstairs on the Köpenick side.  It was Esma, Chris and Linda who did the helping.  And Linda’s dad has a pickup truck.  Linda’s dad, btw, whom I’d never met before, was just like, “Yeah, no problem, we’ll make as many trips as you need.”  Pretty amazing.  

In the end, we only needed one trip, as everything I had fit on the truck in one go.  Well, I say that, but actually Linda came by twice before the move with her car and helped me shuttle some stuff over.  Not a ton of stuff, but it certainly made a difference. Anyway, one hour to get everything down and onto the truck.  One hour to get everything off the truck and up & in.  So two hours total work, plus maybe half an hour of travel.  I was expecting much worse, tbh.  And they were all total troopers about everything.  So tomorrow I’m taking them out to dinner as a thank you.

But I did notice what I took to be two cultural differences in the course of this.  The first was people’s readiness to help.  These three (and others) were offering to help well before I’d even considered asking.  Whereas, in the States, I feel like people would help if asked, but sort of grudgingly.  I mentioned this to Joschka (who had offered to help, but wound up being Stateside on the actual moving day).  And he said this was totally normal for Germany. Everybody moves, so everybody knows what it’s like.  And so everybody is always ready and willing to help.  That this extended so far as Linda’s dad, who didn’t know me from Adam, is still surprising to me.  But obviously I’m beyond grateful.  

The other thing was the approach to the work.  I said they were troopers, and they absolutely were.  But in a way that was different from my own approach.  See, I’ve been through enough of my own moves, and helped enough on others, that I know how I like to work.  That is, start early, work hard, work fast, and take breaks only when absolutely necessary.  It’s not a time for joking around or fun.  It’s work.  

But with these guys, it was much more, “What’s the rush?  We have all day.”  And they meant that.  They would have stayed for however long was necessary.  And like I said, the dad was ready to make multiple trips, at a half-hour each way.  I got the impression that for them, it was more like, “Hey, yeah, we gotta work, but also, this is a chance to hang out and have a good time.”  

I wasn’t expecting that. I mean, I was already feeling guilty for leaning on them in the first place, no matter how happy and eager they were to help.  So I wanted to get them outa here as fast as possible.  To release them, if I can say that, with as much of the day left to them as possible.  Which resulted in Chris saying, more than once, “Dave, slow down.  It’s really OK.”  So that was new for me.

One other thing about Linda’s dad.  Dude speaks with a super hardcore Berlin-Brandenburg accent, with tons of slang. He also has a super dry sense of humor, and he spent a lot of time playfully giving Linda and Chris the business. So when he was talking in the car, I was like, this is amazing.  I would love to listen to this guy talk for hours.  I mean, it’s like a free course on the local dialect right?  

But also, I was kinda terrified every time he talked to me.  Cos then I’m like, what if he says something I don’t understand?  What if I smile-&-nod at the wrong thing?  I could come off as ungrateful, which would be awful.  Or what if he turned that sense of humor on me, and the joke went over my head.  Then I’d either look like I can’t take a joke, or just look like an asshole.  So it was kinda like, “Omg, thank you so much for helping me like this, but also I’m gonna go hide now, so I don’t make an ass of myself.  But also, you know, please keep talking to other people, cos the way you speak is so cool!”

Anyway, point is, the move went a thousand times smoother than I could have hoped, and that’s all down to my friends.  Thanks, gang!

As I mentioned in the last post, one of the many advantages of the new place is, I’m close to a lot of people now.  J-Dawg lives like 15 minutes away by foot.  So my first night here, we went out for dinner and drinks, which was great. And Joschka lives 20 minutes away (by Tram,5 if you’re Dave) or 10 minutes away (by Taxi, if you’re Joschka).

So Joschka’s already been over like three times.  Which is great, but also dangerous.  Because he always shows up with a bottle of something and we’re both night owls.  So it’s not so easy to know when to call it a night, even when I have work the next day.  But it’s pretty great when you send a text saying, “Wanna hang tonight?” And that can go down with like zero planning.

The other nice thing there is, it’s allowed to me to share a bit of my cooking.  I mean, obviously I would cook for the roommates in the old place. But those were always planned events, as it were.  Yet, my normal cooking, that was always just for me.  Which, of course, was fine.  But many were the times when I’d throw something together that I was rather proud of, only to have nobody to share it with.  And that would make me just a little sad sometimes.  

But since Joschel and I are on similar schedules, he’s also a late eater.  So he’ll come over around 9 or 10, and I’ll be just starting or finishing dinner.  And now I get to share a bit of my cooking sometimes.  And that’s nice.  Last time he was here, he thanked me for sharing my food.  Yes, to be polite, but also because he knows I normally cook in big batches, for the week ahead.  So he knows that’s one less dinner I’ll have for myself later.  And of course, I’m happy to do that.  But it’s nice that he recognizes it.  

Anyway, he says thanks for sharing your food, and I’m like, “Dude, I’ve been eating your food for literally years.”  Which is true, right?  I mean, we’ve done so much cooking over there.  And when we go to the supermarket, we’ll share the cost.  But we don’t always go to the supermarket.  Plenty of times we’ve cooked with just whatever he’s had in the house.  Like, “Hey, I’ve got this really nice salmon.  Let’s use that.”  No thought given to what it cost or that he won’t have it for himself later.

So yeah, “Dude, I’ve been eating your food for literally years.”  To which he replies, well, I forget the exact words, but something to the effect of, “Dude, we don’t keep score.”  Like, there was never an expectation of being paid back, was the point. And of course.  I obviously didn’t mean it in a transactional way.  Just a different way of saying what he said.  This is what friends do.  You come over, you get fed.  My booze is your booze.  That’s how we roll.  

I got good people here, ya know?

So I called this post, “Lech Li’chaEdition,” which I’ll explain shortly.  But by way of introduction, last month [October] saw the start of this year’s Torah reading cycle.  Year three, for me.  And rather coincidentally, it lined up almost perfectly with the move.  So I actually began reading this year in the new apartment. Genesis, the cosmogony, Adam and Even, Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel.  A new year, a new apartment.

Anyway, the name of each parsha– the weekly reading – is taken from the opening phrase of said reading.  The first is B’raeshis– “In the beginning.” The second is Noach– “Noah.”  And the third is Lech Li’cha– roughly translated as “Take yourself and go.”  It’s what God says to Abraham when he tells him to forsake his ancestral homeland and schlep west to Canaan.  And you’d better believe this is a big-deal theme in the history of our people.

Sometimes it’s positive, like when God said it to Abraham.  Although even there, it’s bittersweet, because it meant leaving his land, his friends and his family.  Or when Jews started leaving Europe for Palestine and later Israel.  Time to go back to the homeland.  Lech Li’cha.  

But more often it’s negative.  It’s “Get out of your own land and go somewhere else.”  Or worse, when said by whatever host nation, “Get out of ourland and go somewhere else.”  Often as not, it kinda walks hand in hand with schlepping goles.  I mean, it’s what the people of Anatevka say at the end of “Fiddler” when they’re forced from their shtetl

So when it finally came time to leave Köpenick, there was a bit of Lech Li’chain that too.  Time to take yourself and go, Dave.  Time to be independent.  But also, time to leave your first real home in this country.  Time to leave the people you’ve been living with for three years. It’s a good thing, but there’s a bittersweetness to that too.

And looking at things from this perspective, coming to Germany itself was also a kind of Lech Li’cha.  Take yourself and go, make your own way, your own future.  But yes, also, leave your land, your friends, your family. Thankfully, it wasn’t something that was forced on me from the outside.  But it was something I felt I needed to do.  

People often ask me, “Why did you come to Germany?”  And I never love my answer.  I needed a change.  I wanted to experience living in another country.  I wanted to learn a new language.  Having affordable health care is nice.  Berlin is cheap.  And so on. But really, the best answer I can give is a two-worder: Lech Li’cha.  Try explaining that to a goy though, amirite?

In the midst of this realization, something else occurred to me, as I was reading Torah.  Up til now, I’ve only ever read Torah in the old apartment. I mean, yes, I’d brought my Chumash with me on vacations.  So I’ve read at my parents’ house.  I’ve read in Nice.  But until now, Köpenick is the only homeI’ve ever read Torah in.

And now I’m reading it in my new home.  And I realized, “Shit, this is what we do, isn’t it?”  Like, it doesn’t matter where we live.  Until (arguably) America and then the modern state of Israel, we have two thousand years of history of never feeling permanently settled, no matter how hard we try.  Of knowing that the only thing that keeps us who we are in the midst of constant upheaval is this book we carry around with us.

And so now, for the first time, I’m playing my part in that story, sharing in that tradition.  A new apartment, a new neighborhood.  An unforced move, to be sure.  And a happy one.  But still a move.  Same book, though.  That’s what we do. <<

So much for that. Tuesday, it’s off to Nice. Charlotte’s dad is flying her in from South America for Xmas and I’m invited.  Fuck yeah, bitches!  Seriously though.  I mean, it’s enough just to get out of Berlin for a few days.  And obviously, I had such a great time when I did Xmas down there two years ago.  So I’m really looking forward to the sequel.  But more than all that, I’m just looking forward to seeing my friend again. It’s been too long.

So I’m in Nice for four days, and then it’s back to Berlin for a night.  Because the next day I’m off to Paris.  You may have noticed there was no annual Morgenstern trip to Italy this summer.  That’s because Paul is turning 70 this year, and they’ve decided to celebrate in the City of Lights.  And I’m invited.  Ain’t no way I’m turning that down.  So obviously I’m super excited for that as well.  Plus, Anne will be there, so I’m looking forward to seeing her in France for a change.  Plus plus, with any luck, I’ll be able to introduce her to Jared and Josh and Amanda.  I shall be well pleased if I can connect those worlds, you know?

And then it’s back to Berlin on New Year’s Eve.  I should land just in time for the, well, not “ball drop.”  For the (literal) fireworks, I guess.  Joschka and I have our “Dinner for One” tradition to uphold. And who knows what will follow on the heels of that.  But I can report on those festivities in 2020.  

And so, consider this my last post of 2019 and, jeez, of the 2010’s in general.  Wow, that happened fast.  That probably calls for some reflection.  But that’ll have to wait until next year as well.  In the meantime, merry merry and happy happy.  

איך ווינטש אײַך א געזונטע א פרייליכע און א געבענטשטע יאר

זײַט געזונט

  1. One Yiddish word for ‘garbage cans’ is apparently mistkestlech, which I kinda love. []
  2. Interesting side-note.  I sent a picture of said wine rack to my mom, and she’s like “That’s the first wine rack I ever had!”  Small world, eh? []
  3. If I even stay that long. []
  4. My friend Chris – who recommended this allergist to me – later told me that 90 days of pills (or possibly the whole course, but either way) would cost between one and two thousandeuros, if I didn’t have insurance.  I mean, Deutschland über Alles, or what? []
  5. The M1, which stops literally in front of Joschka’s door, stops a block and half from my new place.  #gamechanger []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
29 September, 2019

So, books.  Last time I said anything about what I was reading, it was that Rue des Voleurs.  The ending was not quite what I expected, but it was a great read overall.  As I said at the time, it was fun to read a more modern, colloquial French.  Learned plenty of new vocab.  But the story itself was quite riveting.  One episode included a rather gruesome suicide scene.  Edge of your seat kinda stuff, even if you knew what was coming. Anyway, it was a good read, and it gave Esma and me stuff to talk about for weeks after.  

Speaking of Esma, she just read 1984.1  I imagine we’ll have quite a bit to talk about there as well, but we haven’t had a chance yet.  I re-read that again earlier this year as well.  I go back to it every four-five years or so, it seems.  And it scares the shit outa me every time.  Really, it never gets old.  Gets the wheels turning, you know?  Plus, reading the Principles of Newspeak epilogue now as an English teacher…I mean, shit.  That’s a whole different kind of scary.

The last thing I read was Thomas Picketty’s Le Capital au XXIe Siècle, Capital in the 21stCentury.  Picketty is a left-leaning French “celebrity” economist.  Well, “celebré” was the word Anne used (of course she knows who he is), though I’m not sure ‘celebrity’ is the best translation.  Anyway, he’s kind of a big deal, is the point.  And this book, which came out in 2013, made a pretty big splash at the time. I mean, I remember he was doing interviews on NPR and shit.

Anyway, fascinating book. The first three-quarters are basically a history of western economies from around 1800 or so to the present. The last quarter is his prescription for how we ought to be thinking about capitalism going forward in the current century.  

From the history part, there were several interesting takeaways.  The most shocking was this.  We have all grown up thinking that the post-war world was some kind of new normal. That each generation should do better than the one before, that socio-economic climbing is naturally possible for all, and all that.  And basically, he shows that this period is an anomaly in human history.  That it was the result of two world wars and a depression and the subsequent policies put in place to deal with that 31 year period of constant catastrophe.  

In other words, the wars and the depression so shook up the old order of things, that we could – and more importantly, chose to – reinvent ourselves.  Inflation, which he shows was virtually non-existent before 1914, coupled with the physical and economic destruction of the wars, broke the back of the old aristocracies.  At the same time, a conscious decision was made to create what is often called The Welfare State, but which he calls The Social State.

Obviously I’m simplifying. And I’m not going to get into the economics of it.  But things like high marginal tax rates, and more importantly – or at least, just as importantly – increased spending on universal education and healthcare (the latter, in Europe, anyway), paved the way for what we grew up thinking of as the normal economic mobility of the 20thcentury.  But also, just as importantly, the neo-liberalism of the 70’s and 80’s were also conscious choices, but which threaten to return us to an older order of static classes and self-perpetuating extreme wealth.

“Scientifically” – and I put the word in quotes, because Picketty himself is the first to say that this is not and cannot be a “hard science” – but, “scientifically,” he demonstrates that the inescapable factor at work is that capital grows at a greater rate than the general economy/population.  And that bigger piles of capital grow faster than smaller piles.  So that the super-rich get richer without having to do any actual work.  Couple that with negligible inheritance taxes, and you have a recipe for generationally self-perpetuating wealth.

Couple that again with decreased public spending on education and job training, higher private costs of education, etc. and it becomes increasingly harder for those not already in the wealthiest classes to break into that level.

His proposal then, in simplest terms, is to institute a small tax on capital, something starting at 1% for sums over one million euros and progressing from there, but probably not going higher than 5%.2  Critical, though, is that this exist on a global – or at least, regional – level. Regional being, North America or Europe, but not smaller than that.  The idea being, to eliminate “fiscal paradises” where people hide their money to avoid taxes.

He makes a good case. Obviously people will disagree. And Picketty is the first to say there’s more than one way to deal with this problem, and those ways are not mutually exclusive.  But it’s a good starting point, I think.

Anyway, it was super fascinating, and honestly, a real page-turner, if such a thing can be said of a social-science-economics treatise.  Really, I couldn’t put it down.  That said, it took me months to get through, bc that bitch was literally 950 pages long.  The French itself was pretty easy, very straightforward.  But the economic stuff sometimes required being read two or three times before I got it.  Still though, it’s a book I would recommend to anybody who’s interested in these sorts of things.  And of course it’s been translated into English, German and who knows what else.

After that, I read a couple of Lovecraft short stories.  He’s always fun.  Dark, creepy, imaginative, thought provoking.  Next up is a French book about a guy who gets shipwrecked alone on an island.  Anne recommended it, so I’m sure it’ll be good.  We have quite similar tastes most of the time.  But I haven’t started it yet.3

Very much on the side, I’m also working through a series of short Yiddish poems by Itzik Manger. They’re collectively titled Chumash Lider, which translates roughly as Torah Poems.  Each one is about some or other episode from the Torah.  One was about Eve giving Adam the apple.  Another was about Abraham getting on Lot’s case for being a drunk. They’re really good.  I mean, there’s excellent word play, good imagery, good story telling, humor.  They’re also super difficult, as some of the vocabulary is quite obscure.

Anyway, I’m reading these with Bartek, which is a pleasure.  Partly because he’s just such a swell guy and we get to talk some Yiddish while we work.  But also because he’s super smart and helps me see things I wouldn’t see on my own. And in fairness to myself, it’s a two-way street.  We end every reading, both of us, with the feeling of, “Man, that was great, I understand this so much more than I did when I’d read it alone.”  We even got Akiva to join us once, which only made the experience that much richer.

But of course, it’s slow going.  We’ve only got through three poems so far.  And it’s very much based on being able to match up our schedules for a Skype meeting.  So that’s ongoing.  But I did finally get two very nice Yiddish dictionaries, which should be a big help. Both are published by an institution in Paris.  So actually, one dictionary is a Yiddish-French.  It’s been translated into Yiddish-English.  But the French version was the original, so I figured that was better.  That may have been an overreach though.  I guess we’ll see.  The other is super helpful.  It’s a Yiddish-Loshen Koydesh dictionary.  In other words, it’s specifically for all the Hebrew and Aramaic words, which it just translates into “Yiddish,” i.e. the Germanic (or occasionally Slavic) variants of those same words.  It’s a great resource.  OK, I’m done nerding out now.

Music-wise I’ve been working on three things, basically.  One is, I’m trying to incorporate a couple of Yiddish songs into my repertoire.  I’ve got two down so far.  So that’s fun.  Another is the ongoing jam sessions with Bibi and Ralph.  There’s some talk about maybe trying to score some kind of gig in December, but I have my doubts as to whether we’d actually be ready by then. We’ll see.  And on the classical front, I’m still plugging away at those Carcassi studies.

But here’s the thing that’s really cool about that.  The sheet music I’m using is from my uncle Mike, who passed away a few years ago.  I wound up with a bunch of his sheet music, as I guess I’m the only one currently “studying” classical guitar.  Anyway, it’s got his own handwritten notes all over it. Which is super helpful.

Like, I’ll be trying to work out some passage or other and it’s not coming together.  And then I’ll see he’s got some note there.  Like, use your second finger, or play this on the third string, or go up to the seventh fret, or whatever.  And then boom, yeah, that’s so much easier, thanks!  

So it’s almost like I’m having a conversation with him.  Like he’s there with me, you know?  “Oh, you’re playing it thatway?  I was doing it thisway.  Try that. See?  Much better, right?”  It’s a bit surreal at times.  But it’s also oddly reassuring.  Comforting even.  Like, being over here in Germany, I don’t get to see my family very often.  I’ll never see him again.  But we still get to chill and play guitar together.

You know, in the old days, when the family would get together for Thanksgiving or whatever, the guitar players would invariably disappear off to another room.  Me, Justin, uncles Mike and Rich, cousin Jay (Mike’s son); and anybody else who wanted to listen.  We’d go around playing whatever piece we happened to be working on at the moment.  We’d trade guitars around and try out each other’s instruments.  Hell, uncle Rich builthis own guitars, so we were always trying out his latest masterwork.  Me and him would often try to bang out some or other duet.  Me and Justin might try to hack through a Bach invention together.

Unfortunately, those days are pretty much gone.  But somehow, alone in my room in Germany, I still get to jam with my uncle Mike a bit. That’s pretty fucking cool.

In other news, by way of burying the lede, I got an apartment!  That’s right, my very own apartment.  I am well pleased, you guys.  I won’t be properly moving in until towards the end of October,4 although I picked up the keys this very day. By which I mean Friday.  It’s a pretty decent size, something like 48 sq/m, which probably means as much to y’all in America as it does to me.  

It’s two rooms plus a kitchen and a bathroom.  The kitchen is well nice, plenty of space to do some proper cooking with room for a table to sit four people…cozily.  The living room has plenty of space.  I’ll actually finally be able to give people a place to crash, which is fantastic.  

The area is pretty solid. Much closer to the city, a lot more going on.  The tradeoff, of course, is less nature and no water.  But I’ll be able to ride to work directly, no transfers.  I mean, that’s a fucking life changing right there. Plus, there’s three trains total, not to mention trams and buses.  So transportation options in general are much improved.

It’s not perfect. There’s no balcony, which, as a New Yorker, who the fuck ever expects a balcony.  But they’re more common than not here, believe it or not.  And there’s no bath tub, just a tiny little shower. But, I mean, fine.  

And much like just about literally everything else that’s come my way in this town, it basically fell into my lap.  See, the owner is Bibi’s husband.  And he’s super chill.  He’s like, “Yeah, I don’t need any paperwork or credit checks, I don’t need a security deposit.  Just give it back the way you found it.”  Wow.  I mean, yeah, of course!

Turns out he owns a couple of apartments in the building; his daughter lives upstairs of me.  Or, better to say, I’ll live downstairs from her. I met her today when I picked up the keys.  Very nice kid.  It’ll be nice to have a friendly face in the building.  Also, he (his name is Uli) and Bibi live like ten minutes away walking; so we’ll be able to jam that much more.  Added bonus.  

In addition to all that, I’ll be much closer to most of my friends.  I’ll be 25 minutes from Anne and probably about the same from Joschka; as opposed to an hour now.  J-Dawg apparently lives basically around the corner.  Esma won’t be far either.  Oh, and halfway between me and Joschka is a kick-ass whiskey bar.  The bonuses just keep on coming.  So yeah, I’m pretty psyched.

But there’s a bittersweet note to all of this also.  I’m kinda sad that I won’t be near water anymore.  I mean, until now, I’ve lived my whole life on islands.  Being near water is really kinda key for me.  But more than that, I had to break the news to Lucy and Marco.  They were of course very happy for me.  Bu also, actually kinda sad.  I’ll come back to that point in a minute.

First, let me say again, as I’ve said many times, they’re wonderful roommates.  We have a great relationship.  We still eat together, and lately we’ve even started playing board games together.  And look, I’m not an easy person to live with.  I sleep for hours in the afternoon and I’m up all hours of the night.  I’m often anti-social slash grumpy.  And they don’t care a whit.  They just let me be, let me keep to my ways, and like me for who I am.  And I would never leave here to go live with different people; no matter how nice or practical a given apartment might be.  If I have to have roommates, I would choose them every time.

I say all that, because, man, living with roommates has really started to take its toll on me in the last year.  I mean, I’m 38.  I just want to be alone.  I’m tired of hearing the dogs barking every time I come home.  I’m tired of sharing a kitchen.  Tired of sharing a bathroom.  Of everything, really.  Like, I have days where I Just think, “Gods, I need to get out of here.”  Which is very much about me and not about them. But that doesn’t make it any less real.

Which is why their being sad is so fascinating to me.  Like, we’re clearly different people.  What I mean is, it’s not strange to me that they like me generally.  It’s not strange to me that they find this living arrangement workable.  Or, as I do, the best possible outcome in a world where we have tohave roommates.  What I can’t really fathom is, why, as a married couple, would they actively chooseto have a third person, unknown to them before I moved in, living with them?

And it is a choice at this point.  I don’t think they’re going to rent the room out again after I go.  So, while I’m sure the extra money makes their lives easier, it doesn’t appear to be an out-and-out necessity.  It was actually kinda funny.  Marco was like, “Yeah, well, we’re getting old, we don’t know if we want to start over again with a new roommate.”  And yet, by all appearances, I could have stayed just as long as I would have liked.

And we’re not super close, either.  I mean, sure, we talk at length when we eat together.  We have a great time when we play board games.  And obviously we get along wonderfully.  But we don’t talk at length most days.  We’re not usually going to each other with our problems. We never go out together.  So “close” is not a word I would use, necessarily. 

Which is not to say I won’t miss them.  Of course I will.  And I certainly intend to have them over regularly, whether to eat or play games or both.  Like, I don’t see this as the end of the relationship in any way.  I’m glad I know them, and I want them to continue to be a part of my life here.

But am I sad to be leaving them?  No. And because that’s how I am, it’s hard for me to grasp how they can be different, you know?  But they are.  And they are undeniably a bit sad that I’m going.  Which, as I said, is curious.  But you know what else it is?  It’s also really fucking sweet.  That’s they kind of people they are.  I got super fucking lucky with them.  But it’s time for the next chapter of this whole Berlin story.  

I’ll obviously have more to say about this in the coming weeks.  But for now, I think I’m gonna stop here.  Which I guess makes this an unusually (refreshingly?) short post. But I don’t really have anything else I want to talk about at the moment, so why force it?

So let me just say this. Summer appears to be over.  Which is a bit of a shame.  Or it would be, if hockey season wasn’t starting up.  Let’s go Islanders!!!

זײַ געזונט

  1. In English.  Good on you, girl.  []
  2. Though he stresses that the numbers themselves must be the choices of democratically elected governments. Ultimately the people must decide for themselves what they deem appropriate. []
  3. Or rather, I hadn’t, when I first started this post.  I’m about 50 pages in now.  Pretty good so far, but the vocab can be a beast at times. []
  4. October – which I nearly spelled with ‘k,’ hashtag I’ve been in this country too long. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
2 September, 2019
(Originally written 28 June, 2019)

Oh, hi.  I mentioned in my last post that I’ve got a couple of un-edited posts backing up. This is one of them; originally drafted towards the end of June.  So some of it may be a bit out of date, and some of it may have been covered in subsequent posts.  But it seemed best to me to just put it up as is…

OK, so listen to this. I’m leaving school the other day. And as I pass the second landing on my way down the stairs, I hear a door open behind me, followed by footsteps. One of those super awkward things where you know somebody is like two steps behind you but you don’t turn around cos that’s weird.  But you kinda want to speed up, because the distance between you is uncomfortably close. Except you don’t, because, wait, is that rude?  So you just deal with it till you get all the way down.  At that point, I open the door and stand aside with the universal gesture of, “After you, good sir.”  

Except Good Sir was all, “No, no, after you, good sir.”  And I’m like, come on man, I’m holding the door here, just go.  And he’s all like, but you were here first.  At which point it crossed my mind that good manners get you increasingly nowhere.  

Anyway, I gave up and went first.  Thinking – nay, hoping – that would be the end of it.  But of course Good Sir is walking to the train, same as me. Because of course he is.  And now he wants to chat.  “You live here?  Oh, you work here?  What do you do?  Where are you from?  Did you study German?  Your German is very good.”  Oh gods. 

And in the course of this forced and somewhat awkward conversation, I learn that Good Sir is from Syria, he’s Christian, lives in a sort of refugee hostel in the same building as my school1 and is studying German, having been in the country for three years now.  So yeah, lovely fellow, if a bit socially awkward.  And not at all tuned in to subtle social cues, because I was trying to politely show – without saying – that the last thing I wanted to be doing was having a conversation with a complete stranger after working all day. I think I tried to put my earphones in like three times on the way to the train…

So we get down to the platform.  Now normally, I walk all the way to the end.  Because that lines me up with the stairs at the station where I get off. But he stops towards the front of the platform.  At which point, I say, “Welp, I gotta go down to that end.”  Which apparently he took as an invitation to accompany me.  Ugh.

We keep talking.  The train comes.  We get on and continue the conversation.  Look, it wasn’t not interesting.  For work, he repairs iPhones, a skill which he taught himself by watching Youtube tutorials.  I mean, that’s impressive.

Anyway, he asks me where I’m from.  I tell him and ask if he’s ever been to the States.  He says no, he’s not allowed.  Because he’s from Syria; i.e. one of Trump’s Muslim banned countries.  “Ah, because of Trump?” I ask.  “Yeah,” he says.  “Er ist ein Arschloch,” says I.  (He’s an asshole).  “Doch,” says he.  (Nuh-uh). “Excuse me?” quoth I.  

And that’s when it started. “No, Trump is great!  I like Trump!”  He actually said that.  What the ice-cold fuck?2  I mean, I had to ask, right?  At which point I received my dose of Fox/RT/White House propaganda for the year. Trump is strong on the economy. China manipulates its currency. Europe is protectionist, that’s why you can’t find American products in Europe.3

“Okaaaaay,” I say slowly. “But, like, you know he’s a racist, right?  He plays people against each other.  He riles up hatred.  He’s corrupt and as criminal as you can be without being judged guilty in a court of law.”

To which he answered, “But there’s always been hatred and racism in America.”  I mean, yes.  But you can fight against that, or you can manipulate it and heat it up for your own personal gain.

“But he’s good for Syria. He’s on the right side in the civil war.”  Is what Good Sir said next.  And look, I wasn’t about to tell this guy his own business about his own country. (Even though he was pretty happy to tell me my business about my own country).  But also, to the extent that that’s true, wasn’t Trump continuing Obama’s policies there?  Until he wasn’t.  At which point, didn’t SecDef Mattis resign because Trump decided to basically pull out of Syria?

Anyway, I was only too happy when I could finally say, “Hey, isn’t this your stop?”  I breathed a sigh of relief when he got off the train, I ain’t gonna lie.  And look, he was a decent enough chap, right?  I mean, he was clearly a nice guy.  Thoughtful.  Intelligent, even.  Because you can be smart, and still be wrong.  Or you can be entitled to your own point of view based on your personal life experiences, which in this case are so tremendously different than my own. I mean, let me just thank all of the gods right now that I’m here in Germany because, well, I feel like it, and not because I’m fleeing a civil fucking war.

And on another level, it was refreshing in a way.  What I mean is, when was the last time you were able to have a political discussion with someone you didn’t agree with?  When you were both able to express your opinions politely and without judgment? To be more specific, when was the last time you were able to talk politics with a Trump supporter and notwalk away thinking the person was a racist, a Nazi, a raging idiot, or some combination thereof?  That’s what I mean, when I say it was refreshing.  But also, what the ice-cold fuck, you guys?

In the same vain, I was party to a conversation a little while back.  And by “party to,” I more mean “witness to.”  Because really, this was a conversation between two other people; middle aged Germans, it’s worth mentioning.  And one of them was expressing the “Why are we taking all these refugees when we already have homeless German people?  Why are we paying such high taxes to support these people? And don’t we have a housing crunch without taking in even more people?”  And look, I know this person.  This cat is my friend.  So I was pretty sad to be hearing this stuff from the mouth of a friend.  

But I get it.  I mean, up to a point.  And when I say “I get it,” I do not mean that I agree in any way, shape or form.  I just mean, I get people’s anxiety.  Because that’s how people are.  When you’re already worried about your own housing sitch, or your own job, or when you feel like you’re being pinched tax-wise, well, it’s human nature to look askance at the “competition.”  And when the competition is “other,” however that’s defined in any given scenario, the askance-ness gets magnified.  It sucks, but that’s how it is.

But also, that’s what we’ve got to fight against.  And then I had this thought.  This poor person.  Fuck, this is how the AfD gets voters.  The AfD don’t talk like Nazis, right?  They’re not openly racist.  Well, not usually.  They just play on people’s fears.  They let decent people think, “Hey, I’m not racist.  I’m just trying to take care of myself.”

Also, I should state clearly, I have no idea how my friend votes.  I mean, I have no actual reason to think this cat would ever vote AfD. All I mean is, the views being expressed, they were coming in the language used by right-wing nationalist parties.  Or rather, I should say, right wing nationalist parties have coöpted the language people use to express their fears in order to make their own heinous views more acceptable in polite company.

And I have to say, man, I was embarrassed by how I handled this at first.  Because like I said, this cat is my friend.  So I was trying to be somewhat conciliatory.  You know, things like, “Well, yeah, I know what you mean. I don’t like to see my money disappear in taxes either.  And gods know I’m living this housing crunch, having been trying (and failing) to find my own apartment for nigh on seven months now.”  And only after all that was I able to muster some “buts.”  But these people need help.  But they’re feeling a civil fucking war.  But the homeless problem here isn’t half as bad as in NY or SF. But healthcare in the US is fucked, don’t these people deserve medical care?  But you don’t know how good you have it.  

It was weak tea though. And I’m embarrassed, straight up. I should have been stronger on my principles.  Which brings me to…

Thank gods for my other friend.  She wasn’t having any of it.  She was on top of it from the get.  “You think their taking our housing?  You think they have it nice?  They’re living in corrugated metal shacks.”4  “Homeless problem?  Yeah we have homeless people.  We also have a lot of Germanpeople who just don’t want to work because they’re only too happy to collect social welfare.”5

I forget what her other arguments were now.  But the point is, she was on top of shit, and she wasn’t having any of this nativist bullshit.  But also, she had the credibility to take that stand.  She was able to express these things on a level that I just can’t with my German.  No, that’s not quite right.  I could have got those points across.  But it would have soundeddifferent.  And that’s not nothing.

Because I noticed something super fucking fascinating as this conversation progressed, as they each took to defending their views with increasing vigor.6  Their accents shifted.  Their Berlin accents became more pronounced.  And it certainly wasn’t intentional.  It wasn’t even conscious, I’m quite sure.  Just, they were getting their emotions up, and the pretenses were falling to the wayside.  

I mean, from a purely linguistic standpoint this was just amazing to watch.  But that’s what I mean by ‘credibility.’  They weren’t just talking to each other as friends, or even as ‘Germans.’  They were talking to each other as ‘Berliners.’  That’s what I mean, when I say I wouldn’t have been able to express myself with myGerman on their level.  I open my mouth, and it’s instantly clear that I’m not a Berliner, not the way they are.

None of this is meant as an excuse, by the way.  It’s absolutely no excuse for not being stronger on my principles at the outset. Just that, the same arguments carried more weight coming out my friend’s mouth than my own.  That perhaps my native Berliner friend was more ‘entitled’ – for lack of a better word – to make them than a transitory Yank.

Anyway, hearing my friend say the things I should have been saying woke me up, snapped me out of my shit. It was like, “Oh, shit, yeah, that’s who I am.  That’s what I stand for.”  And again, I’m embarrassed that I even needed that.  Hopefully it can be a learning experience, and I’ll be better prepared next time I find myself party to such a conversation.  

So when I heard my friend speak up, I spoke up too.  And I was pretty forceful, I think, doing the best I could with my German.  Among other things, I said, “Hey, you know, I came here from another country too, you know.  And not for nothing, when my people came to America, they didn’t speak the language.”  Like, come on.  You don’t have a problem with me, because I’m your friend.  But I contribute to the housing crunch.  I came here not really speaking the language.  I’m a part of the gentrification that’s going on around us. I said other things too, and the conversation continued on for a while.  In the end, we sort of agreed to disagree.

But there were a couple of takeaways from all that.  First and foremost, I need to be stronger in expressing my views.  Yes, it’s important to be able to have these discussions in a civil way; to be able to disagree with people without being an asshole. But I don’t have to be conciliatory, I don’t have to give ground just because I like somebody, because they’re my friend.  That’s the most important lesson here.

Also, though, I was super proud of my other friend.  I’d never really talked politics with her before, so I really had no idea where she was on any of this.  And the way she just stepped up to the plate, the way she was just “Nope.  I love you, but I’m not buying what you’re selling, and here’s why.”  I mean, that was fantastic.  I was just so proud of her.  And I was like, “Take notes, Davey.  That’s what we wanna be like.”

As for the first friend, the one with whom I disagreed.  Yeah, that made me sad.  But it was also a good case study.  It was a chance to listen to somebody you care about, to listen to their fears and concerns and try to get at what makes them tick.  To recognize that you can disagree with someone and still care about them, still likethem.  To not just fucking judgepeople.

Oh, and there’s one last thing about this which struck me as rather interesting.  One of these cats is a Wessie(a West German) and one is an Ossie(an East German).  In other words, the Wessie grew up in the ‘Free West,’ if we can say that, with connections to America and all the rest.  And the Ossie grew up behind the Iron Curtain.  And it was the Ossie who shared my views.  It was the Wessie who was on the other side.  Which is weird, because it’s in the East where the AfD has its base.  And we think of the West as leaning liberal.  Yet here it was reversed.  I don’t know what that means.  Just, I found it interesting.

In other news, Torah. I’ve written a bit before on what reading Torah means to me on a spiritual level and on an intellectual level. About how it relates to my Jewish identity, about how reading Torah in a foreign country with no other Jews around keeps me “Jewish.”  

But I’m finding something else now.  I’m finding the rhythm.  Last year was my first time through The Book.7  And so last year meant reading every single day, my face buried in a dictionary.  But I’ve done the hard work now.  I’ve got four notebooks filled with vocabulary. Which means, now, I can just read. Read the text, read the commentary. 

And now, it’s three days a week.  Which Is what it’s really supposed to be.  Even if you go to shul every day, the Torah only comes out three days a week. So I’m on schedule, as a I should be. Reading each weekly reading in the prescribed week.

That’s what I mean by rhythm.  Like, whatever else is going on in my life, there’s always8 Torah, three days a week.  And you know what?  It’s almost always super peaceful.  Like, it’s my time to shut out the world.  Crack a beer, light the pipe, read some Torah.  Sure, that’s probably not what משה רבנוhad in mind when “he” “wrote” the damn thing.9  But it works for me.

And look, that doesn’t mean I always love what I’m reading, right?  I mean, בראשית ושמות– Genesis and Exodus – are pretty fun. Cosmogony, Garden of Eden, Noah and the Flood, Tower of Babel, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat; Moses’ origin story, the ten plagues, leaving Egypt, splitting of the waters, revelation at Sinai, Golden Calf and subsequent shitshow.  I mean, it’s good storytelling.

But man, after that?  You know Torah means “law,” right?10  It’s three books of Do This, Don’t Do That.  You Fucked Up But God Is Merciful…Unless You Really Fuck Up In Which Case Look Out.  Also, the original DIY guide on How to Build a Tabernacle.  And of course, the bestselling “How to Survive 40 Years in the Desert on One Serving of Manna per Day: A Wanderer’s Guide.”  

All I’m saying is, it’s not necessarily the content what keeps me coming back.  It’s the ritual, the rhythm.  Which isn’t to say it’s not interesting.  I mean, I’m learning a lot.  It’s fascinating to see what our greatest minds have made of this text through the centuries, even if I don’t agree with all of it.  

And to be fair, I do like quite a bit of it.  There’s a lot of stuff about how you ought to treat people, how you ought to help people less fortunate than you.  But also, just because you’re poor or powerless doesn’t mean you can’t do anything.  Whatever. Now I’m getting into content, which I didn’t want to do.

I just wanted to say that it’s becoming a part of the background music of my life.  And in a way that’s somehow quite reassuring, quite peaceful.  It’s just always there.  It’s “me time,” when I can work and think (and drink and smoke) alone. But also a way for me to connect with my people across space and time.  

And it weaves itself into the rhythm of the year itself.  You know, reading Genesis is just part of the fall now. And the new year brings Exodus. You remember where you were and where you are.  Like there’s this poetic passage towards the end of Genesis, which – let’s call a spade a spade – is a real bitch to read.  But the first time I read it, I was staying at Charlotte’s place in Nice, for the week between Christmas and New Year’s.  So now, whenever I read that passage – which I guess will be every year now for the rest of my life – it’s always gonna bring me back to that week in Nice, and all the good memories that come with it.

Are there weeks when it just feels like homework?  Sure.  There are definitely weeks where the text is so…ugh, boring.  When I’m like, “OMG, I don’t care about anyof this!”  Oh, also, reading Torah has in no way limited my use of “God” as a swear word.  Like, pretty sure I say “Oh my fucking God, what the actual ice-cold fuck?!?” 87 times a day.  Like a Facebook status, it’s complicated.

All to say, this whole reading Torah thing has become rather important to me.  Last year – the first year – it was a challenge.  Just to see if I could read the whole thing, on schedule, in a year. And I did, mission accomplished. But now, it’s become something more. Like I said, it keeps me “Jewish,” in a land where I feel really very alone as a Jew.  But also, it’s become a part of the rhythm of things.  And that ain’t nothin’.  

One last thing before closing.  I signed up for a week long Yiddish seminar.  It’ll be held in Weimar, the last week of July.  I’m so excited, you guys!  Also a bit nervous.  I signed up for the intermediate course.  There were four options: Beginner One, Beginner Two, Intermediate and Advanced.  Well, I’m clearly past Beginner One and just as clearly not ready for Advanced.  But I was sorta stuck between Beginner Two and Intermediate.  Would the former be too easy?  Would the latter be too hard?  

But I wrote an email to the administrator, and he said I should take the Intermediate, if I was up for a challenge.  Which I am.  Anyway, point is, a weeklong intensive Yiddish course!  I can’t fucking wait.  Also, it’s part of a larger program which includes Klezmer music courses. I won’t be taking any of those, but there will be concerts.  And also, opportunities to jam with people, apparently.  So I’ll definitely be brining my guitar.  And who knows?  Maybe I can meet a nice Jewish girl.  We’ll see. Point is, I’m amped.  

Anyway, that’s enough for now.  Obviously I’ll have more to say on the Yiddish course after it happens.  In the meantime, the Yanks just keep rolling. 

Oh, baseball!  I bought a second baseball glove.  So Joschka has promised to have a catch with me at Tempelhoferfeld at some point during the summer.  And maybe I can snooker one or two other friends into throwing the ol’ apple around. Funny how much you can miss such a simple thing has having a catch when you live in a foreign country…

זײַ געסונט

  1. I always knew there was a hostel in our building.  I didn’t know it was for refugees.  Pretty cool, no?  Good on you, Berlin. []
  2. “What the ice-cold fuck” is actually what came into my head.  I know it’s not a thing.  But I think it sounds great, and I would very much love for it to become a thing.  So please, can you all start saying “What the ice-cold fuck?”  Let’s make it a thing, you guys. []
  3. My first reaction to this final point was to be somewhat incredulous.  I mean, there’s McDonald’s, Burger King and Subway all over the place.  Half the country is walking around with iPhones. But the more I thought about it – and discussed this with other people – it does seem that these companies seem to be the exception and not the rule.  So he may actually have a point there. []
  4. Which is true.  Tempelhof airport has a whole colony of prefab metal shacks for refugees.  And as I later learned from Good Sir from Syria, they’re living in hostels for years on end. []
  5. Such people absolutely exist, though what percentage of the homeless population they make up, I have no idea.  I should add that my friend was in no way disparaging the social welfare state (nor am I in repeating her argument).  She was simply saying that, to the extent that there’s a problem of people taking advantage of the social welfare state, the problem lies far more heavily with native Germans than with refugees, who would like nothing better than to have a job and be able to support themselves. []
  6. Vigorous, but always polite, always civil. []
  7. The Scroll?  No, but actually, it is in bookform.  I’m reading from a Chumash, with vowel-pointing, translation and commentary. I am definitely not anywhere near good enough to “just read” from a sefer torah, the actual scroll, with no vowels, no translation and no commentary. []
  8. Always.  I should say usually.  I still have a life, right?  So some weeks – this week, for example – I need four days.  Some weeks, even five, if time is tight.  But such weeks are exceptions; three days a week is the rule. []
  9. משה רבנו.  Moshe Rabbeinu: Moses, our teacher.  Tradition has it that Moses himself wrote down the Torah, literally transcribing the word of God, as given to him on הר סיני, Mount Sinai. []
  10. Well, it does mean “law.”  But it also means “teaching.” []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
26 August, 2019

OK, so I think this is gonna be a short one.  See, I’ve got like two or three unpublished posts in the pipeline.  It’s just that I haven’t had time to proofread and edit them. And by “proofread and edit,” of course, I simply mean, give them a sober once-over.  Which is probably what I should be doing now.

Except that, today (Saturday), I had my first post-Weimar Yiddish experience.  I mentioned in that post that I had made plans to meet with one of the guys on Skype1 to do some reading and have a bit of schmooze. So that was today.  But before I get into that, I should probably introduce this “one of the guys.”

That would be a Polish goy by the name of Bartek.  Actually, I’m pretty sure his name is whatever the unpronounceable-unspellable Polish version of Bartholomew is.  But in Weimar, everybody got a Yiddish name, and those were the only names we used. So he’s Bartek.  And for the record, I’m Dovid (yes, with an ‘o’),2 or sometimes Dovidl, which is the diminutive.3

Two things about Bartek. First, he’s just a lovely human being. You know, one of those genuinely warm and kind mutherfuckers.  Also, he’s a total language whiz, or Sprachgenie.  And look, I know some of you think I have some kind of knack for languages.  I’ve never thought that.  I just find them fascinating and apply myself.  But nothing about language comes natural to me. And to the extent that some things come to me a little easier, I put that down to experience rather than any innate skill.

But this guy.  Sheesh. He goes to polyglot conferences. Hell, he’s Turkey right now.  Just cos he wants to learn Turkish.  And the only book he brought is a Turkish-Arabic phrase book.  (Yes, he speaks Arabic).  And he’s just all, “Yeah, I’m basically gonna work backwards from the Arabic and just try to listen to people and put myself out there.”   You know, the way nature intended.

Anyway, this is the guy I was reading with today.  As for the text, we picked to two short poems by Itzik Manger. One was about Esther getting ready to see the king; so a Purim story.  And the other was about Rachel and Leah and how they both loved the same guy.4

We prepared the texts in advance.  Which means we did the work of looking up the words we didn’t know (if we could find them; which was not always the case) and reading through the poems a few times to try and get a basic understanding.  Needless to say, poetry in foreign languages is not always the easiest thing.  So that was kind of the starting point.

Naturally, he calls me up from a café somewhere in Turkey.  And I’m like, “Are you sure it’s OK to speak Yiddish in public over there?”  And he’s just like, “If anybody hears me, they’ll probably just think it’s German anyway.”  Fair point.

So the little video window opens up, and there’s Bartek.  “Vos hert sich?” he says.  The Yiddish “What’s up?”  To which the answer is, of course, “Vos zol sich hern?”  “Up? What should be up?”  And from there, a bit of catching up before getting down to business.

Ah, the business.  Now this is the shit that I love.  First, I should explain that each poem tells a narrative story.  And the poems themselves are divided into four line strophes, or stanzas.  So we would take turns reading a strophe out loud.  Then we’d go back over it and deal the vocab word by word before finally coming to some kind of agreement on what the whole thing meant.  

As I mentioned, the vocab was not always easy.  Neither of us have access to a top-notch dictionary at the moment,5 so we were both working with second rate resources. Add to that, Yiddish was standardized pretty late in the game, so the same word can be spelled in a variety of different ways.  And finally, it’s poetry.  So sometimes words are used metaphorically in ways that are not immediately obvious. Sometimes words are straight up invented for a one-time use.

But even just this process – trying to determine what a given word might mean – was fascinating.  Sometimes only one of us found a definition.  Sometimes each of us found a different definition.  Sometimes he’d know a word from Polish or modern Hebrew; and yes he also speaks Modern Hebrew.  Or I might recognize something as being similar to an obscure-ish English word.  Or we might both recognize something that looked German.  And yes, he also speaks German and English.

And, you know, sometimes you just have to settle.  Like, there was this one word ‘lak.’  And the sentence was something like, “and he gave her shoes of lak.”  The best we could do there was to say, “Right, well, it’s obviously something nice and something you can make shoes out of.”  Well, you can’t win ‘em all.  At least not without a better dictionary.  

As for what the poems actually fucking mean…well.  We had some good discussions there.  I mean, there was a lot of, “OK, the way I read it, it means xyz.  What do you think?”  “Oh, that’s interesting.  I had read it as abc.”  And then you present your argument.  Sometimes I convinced him.  Sometimes he convinced me.  Other times, we just sort of agreed that both readings were possible.

And all this is happening in Yiddish, btw.  I mean, at times we would re-state things in English, just to avoid confusion.  But really, we were discussing the texts in Yiddish.  And just, that was so much fun, you know?  I mean, this kinda shit is fun anyway, right?  Like, this is what I do with Phil, my professor, with Greek.  So it’s a good time regardless.  This is my jam.  But to be able to do it with Yiddish texts, inYiddish?  Achievement unlocked.

All told, we chatted for like 2.5 hours.  And at the end, we were both pretty well overjoyed.  Beyond the obvious fun-ness of the whole thing, we both also walked away from it with a very strong feeling of, “Shit, I understand these texts so much more than before we spoke!”  Which, of course, was the fucking point of it all anyway.  

So where do we go from here?  Well, Akivele is super keen to get in on this reading group business.  He didn’t join us today, obvi, bc Shabbos. But he’s already picked a new text for us; by the same author, as it happens.  

Interpolation: This has nothing to do with anything, but.  As I’m writing, I’m listening to the first Diamond Head album.  This is a band that made, I think, a grand total of two albums.  And in the big picture, their biggest contribution to metal is their influence on Metallica, which could not ever have been Metallica without them.6  In fact, I’m pretty sure Metallica has covered literally every song from that first Diamond Head album.

And with good reason.  It’s what I call “internally perfect.”  What I mean is, as a complete whole, it cannot be improved upon in any way. If you changed any aspect of it, even in the slightest, it could only be worse.  That’s not say there aren’t “better” albums.  Albums with a couple of true classic hits, or superior production. But even better albums have that one track you don’t love.  Or the production could be better.  Or whatever. Not so this album.  Every song, every note, every sound, it’s all as perfect as it could possibly be.  How many albums can you say that about?  It really is something special, that first Diamond Head album.  :End Interpolation.

Anyway.  Going forward with the Yiddish stuff.  Bartek and I agreed that we could probably manage this amount of text and two hours of discussion once a week or so.  For now, at least.  So that’s the plan.  And I’m super jazzed about it.  Plus, it’ll be great to get Akiva in on the action.  

Two thoughts on all this, and then I’ll wrap up.  Cos like I said, this is gonna be a short one.  The first thought is not a new one.  But how fucking lucky am I to meet people like this, to have people like this in my life?  I mean, if I had gone to this Weimar Yiddish thing a different week, or a different year, I wouldn’t have met these bochayrim, these fellas.  It’s pretty amazing.  

And look, there’s no way of knowing how long these people will be in my life.  Akiva is in the states, Bartek lives in Poland.  But for however long it lasts, it’s a fucking win.  I mean, I know people will say you’re probably gonna meet interesting people wherever you go, whatever you do.  That is, it’s self-selecting on some level.  You are who you are, and as such, you’re going to meet like-minded people.  

But it always feels so random, so down to chance.  Anne, Joschka, Vinny, Charlotte, Esma,7 and so many others.  And now these two.  But always in the back of mind, there’s this sense of, “Damn, you know, if just one little thing had gone differently, you never woulda met this or that clown.”  I may not always be lucky.  Lucky in love, I sure as shit ain’t.  But this kind of luck?  I just keep coming up aces.  And I’ll never not be thankful for that.

Second Interpolation: The Diamond Head album has ended, on this playlist I’m listening to, and now the first Def Leppard album is playing.  And look, I’m not – broadly speaking – a fan of that band.  Way to cheesy, poppy, whatever you want to say.  But the first album is so different from everything that would come after. It’s very much a NWOBHM album. And all things NWOBHM have a very special place in my heart.  But really, it’s a very very good record.  Not as good as the Diamond Head, mind you.  But good enough to be on the same playlist.8  :End Second Interpolation.

I said I wanted to end with two thoughts.  The first was how lucky I am with the people I meet.  The second…umm, I got distracted by the Def Leppard.  And now I’ve forgotten.  But I thinkwhat I wanted to say was, just how bloody well pleased I am to have an opportunity to speak Yiddish.  Like, it just makes me happy, you know?  It just feels right.  

Akiva put me in touch with this Jewish couple in Berlin.  The husband and wife, they’re both rabbis. And every week, they host a Shabbos dinner.  So I went Friday.  And it was great.  Which, that’s an entire post to itself.  But just to say, there were 12 people at this shindig.  And with twelve people, there were a lot of languages on offer. English, German, Russian, Hebrew, Spanish, Italian.  But not one Yiddish speaker in the bunch.  

So even in a situation where it’s like, omg finally, other Jews in Berlin!  Still, not one person with whom I can kibitz in Yiddish.  Which only serves to emphasize both how lucky I am to have met Bartek and Akiva, and how truly grateful I am for that.  Because those guys are giving me something that I don’t just want, but something which I really kinda need at this point.

Put it another way.  I’ve decided to make reading Torah something central to my life.  But like, not cos I enjoyit, you know?  I mean, there are times when I do enjoy it, of course.  There’s a certain sense of peace that comes with reading Torah with a beer and my pipe.  Which, granted, is probably not what Moishe Rabeynuhad in mind.  But it’s a time to shut out the world, and think and study and learn.  Cheesy, I know.  The truth is though, I do it in large part out of a sense of responsibility. Like, ich bin nicht keyn gleybiker. I don’t believe in God, per se. I don’t keep kosher or observe the Sabbath.  I mean, I’m generally breaking most of the first four commandments.9

But I’ve come to the opinion that, if I’m going to actively identify myself as Jewish, if that’s going to be important to me – and I do, and it is – then I need to act on that.  And if I’m serious about that – and I am – then, if nothing else, I should know the Torah.  Because without Torah, who are we?  What are we? 

So I read – I hesitate to say “study,” because that’s so freighted a word in this context – but I read Torah, as I say, more from a sense of responsibility than anything else.  It’s a mitzvah.  Maybe themitzvah, I dunno.  When I was growing up, my mother used the word ‘mitzvah’ to mean “a good deed.”  Like, if you help an old lady cross the street, you’ve done a mitzvah.  

But really, the word ‘mitzvah’ means “commandment.”  Something, in other words, you mustdo, because The Big G commands it.  And that seems to carry the sense of, “Yeah, dude, it’s a fucking burden, I get that.  But it’s a burden with rewards.  That’s why y’all mutherfuckers are my chosen peeps.”  I paraphrase, of course.  

To put it another way, I guess, I do it to feel connected with my people.  Yeah, it’s a burden.  I mean, it’s real work.  Setting aside an hour-plus a day, three days a week.  Every fucking week of the year.  Anyway, it’s more responsibility than fun, was the point of this whole fucking detour.

But Yiddish.  That’s fun. Just plain fun.  There’s no responsibility there.  Unless you wanna get super meta and somehow wrap it into honoring your parents and grandparents and your family’s heritage, and all that jazz. And yeah, that’s in there.  It’s very much in there.

But at the end of the day, dude, it’s just fucking fun.  And fun in way that touches my heart and shit. Like, I’m just fucking happy when I’m chatting away in Yiddish.  To the point even where it’s working its way into my German.  But that’s for another post.  One of those aforementioned written-but-as-yet-unedited posts, btw.

So lemme end this already-too-long post with a little dedication to Bartek and Akiva.  A sheynem dank, fellas.  A dankfor coming into my life and being generally awesome.  But also for giving me an opportunity to speak some Yiddish. Y’all don’t know what it means to me.

זײַ געסונט

  1. In the event, it was actually WhatsApp. []
  2. Or a qometz-alef, if you spelled it out phonetically in Yiddish.  Which you wouldn’t, because it’s a Hebrew word/name, and loshen-koydishe verterdon’t get spelled phonetically, they get spelled Hebraically; in other words, without vowels. []
  3. Apparently, Dovidl is how the Hassids call DVDs.  A little DVD is a dvdl, or dovidl. []
  4. And both married the same guy.  Because Torah? []
  5. I’ve ordered one – well, two actually – but they haven’t arrived yet. []
  6. One of the guys from Metallica once said, “There are more great riffs in one Diamond Head song than on the first four Sabbath albums combined.”  That should tell you everything you need to know. []
  7. Esma, my former student, is “the Turkish girl” from previous posts.  It’s time a put a name to her. []
  8. Also on this playlist are Motörhead’s “Bomber” album, which fits perfectly with the other two.  And also AC/DC’s “Razor’s Edge.”  Which fits less perfectly.  But hey, it’s my playlist, bitches. []
  9. The whole ‘graven images’ thing is pretty easily avoided.  As for the other six, I can generally manage to honor my parents, not to murder, steal, commit adultery or covet shit what ain’t mine.  Generally. []