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Recovering Yiddish Culture in Los Angeles

Caroline Luce, Author

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Drops of Joy - The Poetry of Moshe Shklar

"Drops of Joy - The Poetry of Moshe Shklar"
A memorial delivered by Miri Koral, August 14, 2014

The house of white paper
that with your thin fingers
you built for my sake,
like your small world
it quakes
and will soon tumble down
and crack.
I doubt that even Samson
could hold it back.

Perhaps the only one
who could restore it
is a poet.

,אָס הויז פֿון װײַסן פּאַפּיר
װאָס דו האָסט אויפֿגעשטעלט
פֿאַר מיר
,מיט דײַנע דינע פֿינגער
װאַקלט זיך
װי דײַן קליינע װעלט
און װעט באַלד
,צעפֿאַלן זיך, צעשפּאַלטן
איך צװייפֿל צי אַפֿילו שמשון
.װאָלט געקאָנט עס אונטערהאַלטן
אפֿשר בלויז פּאָעטן
װאָלטן נאָך געקאָנט
...עס רעטן

“White paper”, how apt a metaphor with which to introduce remarks about the renowned Yiddish poet, writer, and cultural activist, Moshe Shklar, whom I had the great honor to befriend and occasionally partner with in Los Angeles during the last 20 years of his long, creative life.

White paper is first of all a poet’s main tool; and a “house of white paper” can be understood as the facsimile world that everyone — not just a child — erects for themselves in order to both perceive and grapple with essential truths. When it is about to disintegrate – as it must — who better than a poet to rescue and restore it?

It pains me to convey something about a poet who stems from a generation that has nearly vanished. This generation blossomed at a particular time and place and was especially unique. Certainly every generation is unique, but that specific Jewish generation – my parents’ generation — of which Moshe Shklar was a part was so different from the generations that came before or after it, that there is no comparison. And one can’t separate Moshe Shklar from his generation.

His accomplishments as a writer and poet: 12 books of poetry, novellas, and memoirs in Yiddish; his work for the community: editor of the esteemed Yiddish literary journal Kheshbn for 20 years — everything stemmed from a unique secular Yiddish source, which, at the time of his youth, flowed freely, and that shortly thereafter was nearly entirely choked off.

Therefore Moshe understood, like his beloved idol and friend, the great Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever, that he must be both the bearer of his inheritance and the lamenter for the slaughter of the majority of other bearers of his generation.

And we need to be thankful – and I personally am certainly grateful – that he took upon his narrow shoulders and his over-strained heart such an honorable and weighty task. Even among those relative few who did survive the slaughter, only a handful devoted their entire lives to this holy work.

And it is holy. I know that Moshe Shklar, a political lefty, was not a true believer, but he had to have perceived the spirit that was attached to his daily achievements in his creative work and for Yiddish culture.

On a more personal note about Moshe Shklar the man, and not just the representative for his entire Eastern European Jewish generation, with me he generally kept a quite formal and dignified manner – the civilized formality that one doesn’t encounter very often any more.

Understandably – aside from being an elder and an important personage in the Yiddish community in L.A., he was the editor of the journal (Kheshbn) that published most of my poems, and he was the one I could always turn to for something to do with Yiddish – how to use a certain word in a text, how to translate an expression, etc.. He was always happy that someone still deigned to ask these kinds of questions.

So when he joked around – and this wasn’t all that seldom as he often let slip some humorous comment – it was as if suddenly a thick fog had parted to reveal a lively playground.

One of my favorite memories of Moshe Shklar is when we filmed him for the Yiddish Institute’s project “Living Yiddish Treasures."

After a lengthy, intensive hours-long interview about his life and association with Yiddish, he donned an apron, and together with his wife Dorke, went to the kitchen to patiently and skillfully proceed to make matzoh balls. While forming the perfectly round little balls which Dorke then tossed into the boiling water, with a wide smile on his face, he kept making jokes. And he was so comfortable in his apron and his task in the kitchen that it was clear that this was not the first time he had done this.

That was when I understood that this is his true nature -always hovering beneath his serious countenance.

Nonetheless, it stands to reason that many of his poems bemoan the severed generation, the annihilated loved ones, the civilization that was destroyed overnight, the rich way of life that will never manifest again in Jewish society.

And among his poems are those woven through with melancholy, like the poem I proudly read to audiences around the world – most recently in Japan: “Me And Van Gogh’s Shoes”. However, this poem has more to do with the continuity of creativity rather than with grief.

His smile can also be detected in certain poems, because as poet, cultural activist, family man, and just plain mentsh, Moshe Shklar was able to contain and thereby express both his people’s greatest loss and the sweetest pleasures of life.

Here, therefore, is a poem that one can even sing joyfully for it has even been set to music.

Moshe Shklar well knew that at the end one can’t chase down or fence in the wind, the forces that play with our hats and our plans. But one can indeed relish life and love. And through his spirit, intelligence, creativity and devotion, and especially his gentle, enduring smile, Moshe Shklar left us with an abundance to relish.
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