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Recovering Yiddish Culture in Los Angeles

Caroline Luce, Author

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Chaver Paver (Gershon Einbinder): The Land of Eternal Sun (Zalmen Pt. 2)

The Land of Eternal Sun (Dos land fun der eybiker zun)

from Zalmen the Cobbler: Chapters about his 70 years of Life in America (Zalmen der shuster: kapitlen vegn zayne zibtsik yor lebn in Amerike) by Chaver Paver (Gershon Einbinder). Los Angeles: Chaver-Paver Book Committee, 1955: 203-207.
Translated by Caroline Luce, edited by Hershl Hartman.

The next train came late in the day. I was in a rail car where the majority were farmers from the Midwest; farmers who were traveling to explore California, and if it was really as good as they say — they would bring their families and settle there.
They were men who came from similar regions of America, where the earth was a step-mother and the climate a murderer that afflicted almost all of them with rheumatism. An entire rail car with rheumatics. They were middle aged and older men with wrinkled faces, with broken hands, with grooved brown necks, hard as leather. Farmers who toiled all their years on the miserable earth, but who somehow managed to put aside for their older years, besides pain in their knuckles and shooting pain in their sides, also little money.
I looked for a Jewish face and couldn’t see one. But who knew that a Jew was sitting right under my nose. It goes to show that either I am a poor recognizer of Jewish faces, or that one need not always rely on the supposed signs according to which Jews may be recognized. But about that later.
And I was looking for a Jew, as you probably understand, because I wanted to sit next to someone that I could converse with. A trip in a train with someone one could not speak with would have no Jewish tang. And here sits an entire car of people keeping silent, as though out of spite. Not only did they keep silent, no one looked at anyone at all. Each one occupied himself with his thoughts, each one absorbed in himself. So I too sat myself down and also took up keeping silent. Keeping silent like that for many hours until my lips actually began to hurt, I stood up and said aloud to the entire car:
“Listen to me, dear mentshn [people], since we are all no doubt traveling to California and we will necessarily be together for two more days, why should we be bored? Let us instead pass the time together. Let us tell each other why we are traveling to California. I will be the first to tell you. Or let us perhaps sing songs together?”
An older man, with graying beautiful hair, with a high forehead, who was sitting the entire time and looking at a Bible with black bindings, stood up and said:
“It’s right what the man says. Let us become closer to each other. The best thing would be that we should all join in singing songs to our Creator.” And not waiting for any answer, he glanced at an old woman sitting beside him, probably his wife, and she took a concertina out of her bag, and began to play a religious song, and the crowd at once sang along with great feeling. People came running to our car and the choir grew larger. Our conductor, fat and pale, poor thing, also sang along. He had a really beautiful tenor voice.
I, naturally, did not sing along. First of all, I didn’t know their songs; secondly, as soon as I had sat myself down in the train my cobbler’s nose clogged-up again. More than blocked, it became sealed, as though with wax. The old man with the Pentateuch noticed that I wasn’t singing along and said:
“You gave us the idea and you yourself don’t sing along?”
“Yeah, yeah — why doesn’t he sing with us?” others said.
“I am a Jew,” I replied, “and I don’t know your hymn.”
“So sing us some of your Jewish songs,” said the old woman with the concertina. “Yeah, yeah, he should sing us some of his Jewish songs,” the others said.
This was a problem for me. Nevertheless, when a community demands there’s nothing for it, so I began to sing for them kol mekadesh. [“The Holy Voice,”a liturgical song sung before the Sabbath morning blessing, common in Eastern European Hasidic tradition]. Why, of all things, the kol mekadesh? Because that was the only song that I could sing with feeling and with joy. Kol mekadesh brought to mind the delightful taste of fish, of soup, of chicken, of tsimes [stewed plums] on Friday night, the only evening of the week when at the home of my father, the poor cobbler, we would get to eat our fill. And my clogged nose, apparently, also recalled my joyful childhood and it responded a little and let me sing the kol mekadesh, the words of which meant nothing to me; only the melody that brought back good memories. It probably evoked good memories for all those who came from poor families of the old country.
When I stopped singing, they all cheered for me, and the old woman begged me to sing it again, and she would accompany me on her concertina. I sang again and she accompanied me not too badly with the concertina.
While I so heartily sang kol mekadesh, I saw a young man, svelte, gentle, with light blond hair, with radiant, tender, large grey eyes, with lovingly smiling lips, looking at me closely, overjoyed beyond limit. How was I to know that not only was he a Jew, but even a brother-member of the Arbeter-Ring [Workmen’s Circle]. Aaron Goldblatt was his name and he came from Chicago where he was a laundryman.
We did not separate the rest of the way, sat one beside the other and didn’t stop talking. He was a scholar and a very well-read person, with a poetic soul. He had a sort of refreshing voice that went straight into your heart. He told me that he had already been carrying around the dream of California for years and years. Ever since he read Chekov’s story, in which two students at gimnazium [high school] plan to run away to California, “Uov Stranu Vyetshnovo Solntsa,” [In the Land of Eternal Sun]. Those words: “strana vyetshnovo solntsa” were planted deeply into his heart and never let go. When life became especially cruel for him, he would think about setting off to the land of eternal sunshine. And in Chicago, the winter comes with murderous frost, with cruel blizzards, one can’t catch one’s breath. And he still had to deliver laundry to various houses, and if you had to be a laundryman, you might as well be one in the strana of vyetshnovo solntsa.

But before one can reach the “Land” of “Eternal Sun,” one needs to pass through, as you know, a big desert. And we had traveled a day and a night, and still deserted barren sands stretched everywhere, wherever one’s eyes could reach, only sand and more sand. And when we stopped somewhere at a station in the midst of the desert, and near the station grew a pair of little trees, with a little grass lawn, we rejoiced as though over a long-lost brother. I had already said to Aaron Goldblatt that if one could make trees grow near the station why not actually in the desert itself...he replied to me: only under socialism!
It was good, at least, that we were traveling in a train across the desert. Our forefathers didn’t have that, and had to, sadly, drag themselves on foot across the fiery sands. And it was at once now clear why the Jews quarreled so much with Moses Our Teacher and kept squabbling among themselves. When the heat is so oppressive and one faints of thirst, and — day and night, only sky and sand, sky and sand, one literally cannot stand the sight of another. Even here, in the train, people became hardened against each other. One could recognize the exhaustion in their faces, in the profound silence. The water supply in the car had been drunk up quickly and people were sitting faintingly. The older man with the Bible called on us to sing pious hymns to the Creator, but somehow it didn’t go over.
Like this for an entire day my eyes through the car window saw only desert and more desert. In the evening I feel asleep sitting on the seat. And you know how one sleeps upright on a train car seat. You keep waking up with a headache. Very late in the night I had been fast asleep without interruption for a while, when I felt someone awakening me. It was Aaron who roused me and whispered in my ear with great delight:
“Look, Zalmen, look!”
So I looked. And what I saw I have never forgotten: groves full of trees, covered in golden oranges, and the sun of pure gold and everywhere — green valleys, and in the green valleys, white and red fat cows grazing so calmly. And above all the palm- trees, exactly as in the Pentateuch...
"Strana vyietshnovo solntsa," my brother from the Arbeter Ring said to me in a melodious voice, and he himself beamed like the California dawn that we saw through the window pane...
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Discussion of "Chaver Paver (Gershon Einbinder): The Land of Eternal Sun (Zalmen Pt. 2)"


I am enjoying this thoroughly. My grandfather came across the country from Tartakov in the Ukraine, via Malden in Massachusetts, to Boyel Heights, bringing his family just after the First World War. And I've been in his house there, over half a century ago. So this is my story to some extend.

Posted on 11 August 2018, 2:31 am by Gary Michael Tartakov  |  Permalink

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