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Recovering Yiddish Culture in Los Angeles

Caroline Luce, Author

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Ber Grinfeld: An Interview with Sholem Aleichem, Pt. 1

“An Interview with Sholem Aleichem (a sort of feuilleton)” by Bronzviler Stolyer [“Brownsville Joiner,” pseud. of Ber Grinfeld]
As appears in Khesbn (The Reckoning), vol. 1 (1946): 63-68.
Translated by Mark L. Smith.
[Translator’s note: words underlined were written in English, but with Yiddish letters; names of well-known persons are spelled as they usually appear in English.]

I don’t know, have you ever been in paradise? I, you see, can boast that in the last twenty years, since I settled in our world-renowned city of Los Angeles (I have no doubt that [the famous evangelist] Aimee McPherson, may she rest in glorious paradise, contributed much to the popularity of our city), have been, with the help of several automobile collisions, already more than once a guest in paradise . . . There, I strolled around and saw with my own eyes how things are doing with the select few who are destined to have this exalted life and to enjoy shor-habor and Leviathan*, in addition to Danish pastry and chocolate nut sundae, and so on.
So, not long ago, God help me, I’m gorging myself on buckwheat porridge and I feel I’m beginning to choke — right here on the way to my stomach, and before I have time to call for help, I feel my head spinning and I’m out of breath. Immediately an angel sweeps me up onto his little right wing — straight into paradise . . .
This time, the good angel lifted me up into a delightful little birch forest and set me down in deep grass.
The delightful scents intoxicate me and I feel like singing a song to the creator of the universe, who created such a splendid paradise in the world to come . . .
I look around on all sides and I see how the little red heads of juicy berries are winking at me from between the tall grass . . .
My heart is fluttering and the saliva is beginning to run in my mouth — and the berries are winking and imploring me: “Go ahead, grab us and put us in your mouth, and you will experience the taste of paradise . . . But I’m afraid to move toward them, to the berries, although they are sparkling and shimmering in the golden needles of sunlight that steal through the tall trees of the little forest. My hands are drawn to the berries, but I recall Adam’s downfall, when he let himself be convinced by Eve to sample the fruit in the Garden of Eden.
But this is not my point . . . What I want to tell you is about my astonishment when I regained my senses and looked around at where I was in the world — that is, I mean, in paradise — I see that not far from me stands a soldier’s canvas tent or, as we call it, a “palatke” [pavilion or booth at a fair], and by the open door, sitting in a rocking chair, is an old Jew with long white hair, and I could swear this is our Sholem Aleichem — holding a book in his hand. I recognize the book; it’s Sholem Asch’s latest book, his epistle [One Destiny: An Epistle to the Christians, 1945], with which he, Sholem Asch, shook the Jewish street once again, and for which from one side people again threw stones at him . . . and from the other side of the street, people threw him flowers . . . although there lay hidden in the flowers a stone . . . I give a good look at the face of the old-timer who sits by the tent, and now I’m sure this is really Sholem Aleichem — God, how aged he has become! What’s so surprising? The Jewish catastrophe in Poland and Germany, and in all of Europe . . .
Perhaps it would be a good idea to go and ask him, Sholem Aleichem, for an “interview,” it suddenly occurs to me. And I take my walking stick in hand and go straight to the tent.
Sholem Aleichem raises his head from the book and puts a hand on his eyeglasses, the better to see who is walking toward him.
As I’m walking, my heart is pounding — who knows, will he want to give me an “interview”? Who knows, will he want to use my stick to break my bones? . . . The last few steps I was more running than walking . . . I did this deliberately — so he, Sholem Aleichem, should not have time to decide to send me to the devil . . .
I look at our greatest humorist, extend my hand, and speak: Hello, Mr. Sholem Aleichem, how, hawayeh [how are you]! . . .
He takes my hand reluctantly with the tips of his fingers . . . looks at me suspiciously with his penetrating, wise, yet sad eyes; a sarcastic smile appears on his face, and he mutters back to me my two charming words:
Hello . . . hawayeh . . . Apparently an American, ha? Who are you, and what do you want from me?
— An interview I would like from you, Mr. Sholem Aleichem, and I am the Joiner from Brownsville. I was sent to you by a student of yours, your best interpreter and reciter, the famous and beloved performer Elihu Tenenholts, who still never fails to read your writing and your [ethical] will on each anniversary of your death [as Sholem Aleichem had famously requested], in the rooms of the Los Angeles Yiddish Culture Club, where, in the place of honor, your picture is hanging in a golden frame . . . And now, in honor of its own new home, which the Yiddish Culture Club built, we are publishing a journal on the occasion of its dedication, and I have been commissioned to ask you for an interview, Mr. Sholem Aleichem.
— So, Elihu couldn’t send someone other than a joiner? . . .
A female angel appeared in the narrow doorway of the tent with a little seat in hand. I run and take the little seat from her beautiful hand, and I sit down facing Sholem Aleichem.
He looks me over again from head to foot, makes a sad smile, and says:
Really, you come from Los Angeles? A fine city, your Los Angeles! When [the anti-Semitic preacher] Gerald K. Smith traveled the whole country and couldn’t find a meeting hall anywhere to hold his poisonous Hitlerian sermons, he comes to your Los Angeles and the school directors give him permission to speak, and one of your little Jews is a representative of the so-called Civil Liberties Union — and he helps Smith get the auditorium of one of the largest high school buildings — a fine city your Los Angeles! Really a fine city; “chert poberi” [Russian: “to hell with it”]!
Sholem Aleichem, I see is angry, but he’s restraining himself . . .
— In that case — I say dejectedly: — so apparently you know our city of angels, Mr. Sholem Aleichem? . . .
— Do I know your Los Angeles? It seems to me that in no other city in your America is there such a collection of first-class liars, swindlers, and cheap politicians, and all sorts of religious fanatics and hypocrites, as in your Los Angeles! Do I know Los Angeles! But, better, tell me something about the Jewish Los Angeles — I want to know, how did Jewish Los Angeles react to our great catastrophe in Europe? . . . And what are they doing, our American Jews, to help the surviving victims? Your Jews of Los Angeles who had more luck than sense when they fled from Europe . . .

* The legendary wild ox and giant fish to be eaten by the righteous in messianic times.
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