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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. 2

“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 sit with a lowered head and am silent . . . I am ashamed to look Sholem Aleichem in the face . . .
— I understand — sighs the great humorist — the same fighting among all the parties; even now, after the greatest Jewish catastrophe, they can’t share the inheritance and the honor. Each party bangs its own collection box . . . and only they are going to save the world!
— Yes — I say — Mr. Sholem Aleichem, each party with its collection box, and if there isn’t a new party with a new collection box, they think it over and they split an old party and, from one old party, there are two new ones with two new collection boxes.
Sholem Aleichem is silent for a while, then slaps himself like someone who remembers a happy thought, and he says:
— What is our Sholem Asch up to there?
This question takes me aback a bit . . . and I begen stammering: w-w-what then, you don’t know anything that’s happening on the Jewish street with regard to Sholem Asch? But I see Asch’s book on your lap! . . .
— I have indeed heard some malicious gossip about his doings . . . but the news that reaches me comes from two types of witnesses: either from an enemy, or from a disciple . . . and I would like to hear an opinion from a third party, an opinion from someone nonpartisan, so to speak . . . When someone comes to me who’s a supporter of the Forverts [Jewish Daily Forward, a socialist newspaper] or the Morgn Frayhayt [Morning Freedom, a communist newspaper], I plug my ears and don’t want to hear their babbling — somehow, I don’t believe that Asch would have gone over to the gentiles!
— Mr. Sholem Aleichem,
— Stop mister-ing me! — said Sholem Aleichem, flashing his eyes — I’ve been mister-ed enough already!
— If that’s the case — I say — I will simply call you: Rebbe! Have you, Rebbe, read [literary critic] Sholem Niger’s open letter to Sholem Asch in the Tog [Day, a nonpartisan liberal newspaper]?
— Read. — answered the rebbe with a sour voice.
— So — I say, — here you have a “third party” opinion!
— It’s not to my liking — says the rebbe — short and dry: with one hand Sholem Niger strokes Asch’s cute little face, and with the other, he makes gestures, and poses him questions, says things to him, to Asch, as if to a spoiled only child.
So I say — And have you read Melech Ravitch’s opinion in his book, Mayn leksikon [My Lexicon]?
— Read, but Ravitch is also a disciple . . . Ravitch wants to sit seventeen years and wait to see where Asch will go; whether to hell or to heaven . . . This is nonsense. — I contend — says the rebbe (and for this I have really been waiting) — I contend that Sholem Asch can hardly do us any harm simply because no one takes him seriously . . . It’s unnecessary to speak of the large masses; they don’t read his so-called theological books, those of his books that have given him a swelled head. He began to think of himself as a brother to Jesus, who will mend the rift between Jews and gentiles . . . Apparently he doesn’t know that the Germans killed all the gods, and the ruined world remains godless. Now, in the whole world, there is no God to grant healing.
Sholem Aleichem remains sitting with his head cast down and is silent.
Rebbe — I say — did you know Meylekh the Musician? Meylekh the Musician reminds me strongly of Sholem Asch . . . When Meylekh would take his fiddle in hand and place it under his red beard and begin playing Paganini’s 24th Caprice, he would open all the doors of heaven; under his open window the whole town would stand as if enchanted, holding their breath, and when his fiddle took up a volokhl [Wallachian rubato dance melody], one could faint from bliss, but the same Meylekh the Musician with the red beard and with the childlike dreamy eyes, would come home from a wedding, dead drunk, and he would begin hitting and beating his wife with the strength of a murderer, and with her cries she would wake the whole Jewish street; people would stand under the window and hear her cries and curse Meylekh the Musician with the red beard — curse him to death.
Sholem Aleichem did not let me finish my story with Meylekh the Musician. He interrupts me and says:
— Better you tell me what is happening on the Yiddish cultural street in Los Angeles! What is my Elihu Tenenholts up to there? Do Jews still read my books, ha? But tell me the truth, without embellishment.
Rebbe — I say — if you want to know the truth, I must tell you that wartime prosperity, together with assimilation, has caused a great spiritual decline on the Jewish street, and Jews sit and play cards . . . This is said of the rabble, but select individuals read your books, and weep, weep because Hitler killed and burned the whole Jewish world, the entire source of your work, and all that remains is — your precious, invaluable books.
I arose from the little seat and would have held Sholem Aleichem to by heart, and kissed him, but I felt as if someone held me tight in his arms. I open my eyes and see — how a doctor is holding his ear to my heart, and with both hands is holding me so tight that I can’t make a move.
The doctor lifts me up, and, turning to the strange men who are standing beside my bed, dressed in black, he says to them: So, the devil isn’t taking him yet . . . He just gobbled too much buckwheat porridge and fell into a deep faint.
— Who are these men? — I ask the doctor.
— This is the undertaker with his assistants; they came to visit the sick, that’s all.
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