25 Jun Gnoyensky, Averbukh (1883 – 1972). 4: Jewish Tradition camouflaged; Philosophy; The Everyday.
Sneaking in Jewish Traditions.
Chanukah gelt and the number eighteen that was somehow a word that meant life, belonged to the olden irrelevant days of bábushka’s youth. And so did fasting on a day called Yom Kippur when the adults did not eat then in the evening we dipped apple in honey before chicken soup was served. And marking new year on different days in the fall but not putting up a New Year tree when the real new year began. And running, horrified, to catch me from entering the nearby St. Vladimir Cathedral that beckoned with its mysterious illuminated interior.
And eating flatbread called matzos, very tasty when fried in eggs (gefreshte matzos), for an entire spring week called Peisach when Polina used a plate that for the rest of the year sat, wrapped in newspaper, on the top shelf above the stove (she cried when I decided, once, to put spaghetti in it.)
On Saturdays, Polina uncharacteristically did nothing – and I mean nothing – not even turned on the light or washed her hair or fixed the hem on my dress; she sat at the window or lay on the sofa and read. After Yom Kippur, she spent hours making notations in Yiddish on the margins of a newspaper calculating, she explained, what days the holidays would fall on next year. Oddly, the days differed year to year. After transferring the final notations to a notebook bought for that purpose, she burned the used scraps of the newspaper so that the janitor would not see the writing in the garbage. Not that the language was illegal, per se, though nobody would speak it in the street to avoid contemptuous stares, but an alphabet other than Cyrillic might compel the janitor to contact her handlers. One could not be overcautious. Polina kept the notebook in the hollow of her sofa’s headrest.
Polina accompanied these customs with a conspiratorial glance at me, her hand turning a key to lock her mouth like her father Velvel used to do. Secrecy made little sense. The secret customs had to do with Jewishness but that nationality screamed, loud and clear, from passports, whether one carried it proudly, as a burden, or as an embarrassing tattoo.
One custom did not warrant secrecy: we never drank milk after meat simply because the stomach would hurt. My friends ridiculed me for taking that notion seriously. At eighteen, I washed down a kotleta with milk, since nothing else was available at the café.
Polina pressed her palms to her cheeks, “Vey iz mir (woe is me.”) The forbidden combination proved stomach-safe; it also proved unappealing.
The word kosher was a synonym for honest as in kushere eygen (kosher eyes.) In the United States I learned the meaning and realized how desperately Polina had clung to her version, albeit an emaciated one, of the traditional dietary law. She crafted it in a way I had not associated with Jewishness like I had with the secret customs.
(That Jewish was a religion, a word used next to “freedom to practice” guaranteed by the constitution and “opium of the people” as defined by Marx, I was not aware until arriving in the United States.)
Leaving out the word, abridging and stage-managing the outward symbols did not relinquish, or diminish, the heritage behind them. Polina held on to it for dear life, it did not grow old or fade, least of all irrelevant. It did not transform into a legend but endured as a life-sustaining legacy and way of life.
While mourning her past, Polina did not romanticize it. Rebellion appealed to her: out with arranged marriages, with uneducated women, with men praying and making children they could not feed! However, the new socialist path to universal happiness did not add up to common sense like it did to the majority of Jews, including the Gnoyenskys.
She catastrophized the times she lived in and felt quite alone in her assessment. The Bolshevik Revolution elevated the Jews to equality with workers and peasants at the price of tradition ‒ what was there to crow about? Had Bena lived would have Polina, conditioned to probe, to doubt, to inquire “then what,” questioned her idolized husband’s reasoning and become an albatross around his neck or would she have re-sculpted her mind or softened her will?
Singing, Reading, Networking, and Philosophy.
Polina did everything: cooked, polished, sewed, mended, darned, cleaned. Using primus, she baked miracles for my birthdays that were so popular with guests that I had to be satisfied with leftover crumbs.
She refused to teach me to bake but, bowing to my pressure, she taught me to darn socks and to sew buttons, to cut up a chicken, to salt meat before storing it, to make soup, kotlety, and stew. After each debut, she would not allow repeat performances. “You know enough to get by. Now, go and read.”
While Polina worked she hummed. Few words elbowed into her hum and one phrase broke out sometimes: nefeshl hat royte bekelekh (baby has little red cheeks.) “My mother used to hum,” she said, “So silly, we are tone deaf but we constantly hum.”
(Sixty years later I discovered the full version of the rhyme: Pachi-pachi kikhelekh, mamme koift shikhelekh, tateh koift zekelekh, nefeshl hat royte bekelekh (patty-cake patty-cake, mama bought little shoes, papa bought little stockings, baby has little red cheeks.))
Polina knew the words to a single song, an endless sorrowful correspondence between a shtetl wife and a husband in America struggling to save up for his poverty-stricken family’s boat passage. The wife is asking his advice on how to keep their children alive and their bellies full; the husband offers the same solution for every kick in the teeth: rely on Gott. “And that’s how life was,” Polina always concluded the song. The last couplet stuck in my mind:
Mit wemen vil ich feern di kinder zu der Chuppah, Sanderl mein man? Mit wemen vil ich feern di kinder zu der Chuppah, Sanderl mein man?
Mit Gott, mein veibele, mit Gott, mein Teibele, mit Gott, meine goldene Krein.
(With whom will I walk our children to the Chuppah, Sanderl my husband? With whom will I walk our children to the Chuppah, Sanderl my husband?
With God, my little wife, with God, my little dove, with God, my golden crown.)
Polina had mentioned chuppah enough times for me to connect it to a wedding ceremony but, she said, it was one of those old and irrelevant things.
Reading, story-telling, letter-writing were Polina’s passions. These very Averbukh gifts compensated for the absence of musical or any other artistic ability. She was the only sibling to write to Avrimele. She encouraged Rakhil to keep in touch with his daughter Ray (Ruth), also named after her Averbukh great-grandmother.
Rakhil kept a greeting card from Ray for a long time that said “From Rukhlya to Rukhlya.” In the early 1930s when having a relative abroad served as evidence of spying, Rakhil burned the card and Polina broke off the correspondence.
Polina maintained regular contact with her two long-distance siblings, her sister-in-law Babele, and her surviving childhood friends. Upon the arrival of a letter from a landswoman, Polina read it out loud injecting comments and olden-days tales.
Most of them big-city dwellers now, the shtetl-girls exchanged the paltry crop of Belaya Tserkov news and boasts of their grandchildren. The bulk of their letters consisted of requisite greetings from every member of the sender’s family and inquiries after each member of our family. Polina savored the heart-tugging bonds breathing between the lines, lack of substance and imperfect writing style notwithstanding.
Her sister Esther filled her post cards to overflowing, invariably leaving essential news to the indecipherable scrawl snaking around the minuscule margins.
Her brother Leib was a soul mate. They devoted pages to philosophical observations and discussions of word meanings. Leib lamented the absence of Yiddish publications in the Soviet Union – every Polina’s letter, in his opinion, was a publisher-ready short story or essay.
Polina owned three thin battered Sholom Aleichem books in Yiddish hidden in the headrest of her sofa. “When the gazlunim come with a search,” she reassured my parents, “I will lie down and moan; they would not suspect an old Yidene of keeping illegal literature.”
In Russian, Polina savored Conan Doyle, Turgenev, and Pushkin, particularly Pushkin’s poem The Bronze Horseman. Her eyes closed in rapture she recited poems in a precise way people do in their second language.
Dizziness prevented her from reading for long periods of time. During Polina’s confinement following her heart attack I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin to her. The episodes that she asked to re-read she could narrate by heart.
Sholom Aleichem supplied many of the sayings that interspersed Polina’s everyday conversation and that, to my ear, sounded like genuine proverbs. When I found them in his stories I first assumed that he had borrowed them from my bábushka and was disappointed to learn that he had been her source.
Mein Bruder Eli hat Hasanah, My Brother Eli is Getting Married, the title of one short story, became synonymous with stiff awkward-looking clothes (in the story, a boy gets new pants for his older brother’s wedding that are made from such cheap fabric that they stand when placed on the floor and rustle when worn.)
Another title, Es iz Mir Gut Ich bin ein Yusim, I am Lucky I am an Orphan, acquired the meaning of seeing disaster as a benefit (in the story, a little boy anticipates a less-hungry life after his father’s death knowing that the community will go to great lengths for the mitzvah of supporting an orphan.)
Not fond of verbosity, Polina was quick at coming up with succinct observations worthy to stand next to her father’s. “In marriage, do not aim to dominate or to surrender: if one spouse is a zero then the couple consists of one.” “If you have to do something, enjoy it, otherwise you’ll lead a miserable life.” “There is no such thing as an insignificant deceit; any deceit nullifies all the good deeds because it nullifies trust.” “What has a price tag is cheap; it’s what can’t be bought that one must cherish.”
Born with foresight and efficiency and bred on practicality, Polina had developed a sure prescription against disappointment with Gott’s treatment: “ask for a tad more than you actually want so that when you get less – and people always get less – it will be exactly what you wanted.” On the other hand, she found no wisdom in some time-honored sayings. She was baffled when she heard “the apple does not fall far from the tree.” She shook her head: “The apple does not fall; apples remain on the tree forever.”