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Recovering Yiddish Culture in Los Angeles

Caroline Luce, Author

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Chaver Paver (Gershon Einbinder): The One-Legged Hero (Zalmen Pt. 6)

The One-Legged Hero (Der eynfusiker giber)

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: 219-223.
Translated by Caroline Luce, edited by Hershl Hartman.

I am getting off track with Dr. Blass, which should have come later, but first what I want is to tell you about my first days in California and about a certain Sabbath evening.
If you could have been climbing with me on that certain Sabbath evening — it was, it seems to me, just before “Labor Day” — on the quite tall Mount Wilson, you would have seen something unlike anything you’ve ever seen in your life.
I don’t mean the wonders of nature, that is a separate thing; I mean the sight of a young man on one leg, using two crutches, who absolutely refused to desist, climbing alongside everyone else.
How did I unexpectedly undertake to climb and nearly reach death’s door on the top of a mountain six thousand feet tall on a Sabbath night?
You could really ask the same about the entire Jewish group, about a hundred in number, who together with me also nearly reached death’s door and all climbed up, up with great obstinacy and with a sort of self-sacrifice. And why really were we crawling upwards? And why really was the one-legged man on crutches crawling upward? All so we could see a sunrise at the very top of the very tall Mount Wilson.
California astounded me not only with aspects of nature which I saw for the first time, but also with the variety of Jewish groups that I also was seeing for the first time. There was at that time a group whose entire function was sunbathing Adam-naked; there was at that time a society that I called “The Orange Congregation,” that is, those who believed that the juice of oranges cured all sickness; and many, many more curious groups. The group with which I was crawling all the way up the very high Mount Wilson that particular Sabbath evening called itself “The Jewish Hiking Club.” Such a club was probably the one and only club of its kind among the Jews in America. The said club was immediately pleasing to me not, heaven forbid, because a cobbler loves to see people walking a lot and the more the better, but, rather, simply because Jewish young people, especially of the craftsman class, hadn’t ever done such a beautiful thing and on such a mass-scale.
People used to gather together on their days off-work and around a hundred of them would set off. Wherever there was a mountain around Los Angeles, they climbed it. And the higher the mountain, the greater the desire to climb it. They hadn’t yet conquered the very tall Mount Wilson. That Sabbath night we went to conquer it.
And where there were so many young people, of both sexes, there would also be much laughter, and I so loved how they laughed, and besides, there was a big silver moon in the sky, and mountains all around, one higher than the other, and the city itself at their feet, not at all like any other city, rather like many strings of pearls and jewels instead of streets.
What can I tell you: my breath was taken away, not only by climbing such a high mountain, but also because the world at night could be so beautiful. And then a song came on. I still knew not who sang it, but it arose from one of the young men with a silver tenor, walking somewhere in the front rows, and I was in the back, since I didn’t want to be separated from the one-legged fellow. I wanted to be near him in case he needed someone to help him. But he would never allow anyone to help him. A young man of about twenty-eight years with a strong brow, a wide face, a thick head of hair, hatless, and in an unbuttoned shirt, he hopped on both his crutches and breathed hard and didn’t want to stop even for a minute to catch his breath. I haven’t ever in my life seen such human obstinacy.
Later on I learned his determination was not only due to his desire to show that a one-legged man like him could reach the high peak of Mount Wilson together with everyone, but also because of his great love for a young woman who was also among the climbers. That young woman, with such beautiful black eyes that she probably made every young man’s heart swoon, had a fiancé in New York, who was soon to migrate to Los Angeles. Almost every one of them knew of this and almost every one of them knew also that the one-legged man was madly in love with her. But how was it her fault, that all the young men wanted her? The young man with the silver tenor wanted her as well. He did sing for everyone, but he meant it for her.
And my train-brother, the laundryman Aaron Goldblatt, was also among the climbers. Why shouldn’t he be? Who else but he, who had been dreaming for so many years of the land of the eternal sun, should go to see how it appeared at dawn, when one got up to the top of a 6,000 foot mountain? He had already by then brought over his wife, a dark and charming woman, with a really beautiful smile and a very pleasant voice.
And in that night I became acquainted with another young man with a shy smile. He, just as I was a cobbler son-of-a-cobbler, was a tailor son-of-a-tailor, and he climbed with his tiny but very attractive wife, Lina. And now I see Zalmen the tailor with his wife Lina at all the (Jewish) events everywhere. I now see attendants at such events from among those who climbed that night on Mount Wilson.
One of them however I no longer see, Kadish he was called, a quite short, overweight man, in eyeglasses, with curly pitch-black hair. He was a house painter. He made a pleasant impression on me because of his voice, he possessed something of a joyful voice, full of rapture. We stuck together one to another. He told me what kind of a poor childhood he had known. He was often simply hungry and also often sick, so that he was now so happy that he was in California, climbing with friends up a high mountain to spite the poverty and to spite the hunger and the sickness, and the severe exploitation of the bosses. And he lives and has such enjoyment of the world and of its nature.
Thus we were at death’s door, gushing rivers of sweat and crawling until, in Sanctification of His Name, we got to the house that was exactly half way up to the peak. There at the house we sat to rest and also to replenish our hearts a bit with a sandwich, and a hot cup of coffee. And again, with song and with jokes that were being created right there, we set off again. The leaders of the “Hiking Club” had planned our itinerary so that we would reach the peak right in time for sunrise. And we really did reach the peak exactly by sunrise and the one-legged man, completely drenched in sweat, also reached the peak just in time for sunrise. Beside him stood the young woman with the very beautiful black eyes, who had a fiancé in New York, chatting with him and smiling at him.
As to the sunrise, my powers of speech are insufficient to describe it. Suddenly, from somewhere far below the mountains lower than ours toward the east, a tremendous array of red beams of light began to burst from the skies, and the brightness appeared on the edge of the clouds like a river of pure gold, followed by the sun, the pure, radiant California sun. All of us hundred people were standing so still, almost as though in fear, and Kadish, the house painter, the rather small man, chubby Kadish in eyeglasses, took off his hat and dropped down to his knees and bowed before
the sun, as one prostrates himself before God....
I will never forget the scene. We, the Jewish group, all from Jewish shtetlekh on the other side of the ocean, almost all of whom knew poverty and want, all of whom had suffered in the small garment shops, now stood on the peak of Mount Wilson, six thousand feet high. And the sun rose before our eyes with rivers of gold...And all around, only mountains and more mountains, smaller ones and taller ones. All covered in forests, and all of them seemed as though they were tumbling down, down. It made one lightheaded ...but you should have seen the radiant eyes of the one-legged man.
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