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Recovering Yiddish Culture in Los Angeles

Caroline Luce, Author

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Moshe Shklar: A Short Stroll Through a Long Life (Pt. 2 of 4)

A Short Stroll Through a Long Life: Reminiscences

Unpublished autobiography of Moshe Shklar, Los Angeles 2011
Translated by Hershl Hartman 
Chapter 9, "Names and People: Encounters in Los Angeles," Part Two

[Interjections in brackets are the translator’s; those in parentheses are by the author.]

Long before I left Poland I found among the many foreign [Yiddish] newspapers and journals on my editorial desk the small journal Kheshbn, published by the Los Angeles Yiddish Culture Club and its Writers’ Circle. I could not have imagined in my wildest dreams then that, years later, I would be the editor of that journal. But that is what happened. I had read the magazine with two-fold interest. First, I remembered that in that far-off Los Angeles there had once lived such noted Yiddish writers as Peretz Hirshbeyn and H. Rosenblatt, whose work left deep influences on Yiddish literature. And secondly, because my wife’s three sisters and their families lived there, and I hoped to meet them at some time.
And thus it happened. We met, rejoiced at our meeting after those difficult life-experiences in Poland, and I began to seek out the cells of Yiddish cultural life right here. First of all were the Yiddish Culture Club and the Writers’ Circle, the publishers of Kheshbn. I found the Culture Club. It was a handsome institution with its own building and interesting cultural events, at which I was also invited to appear. But the Writers’ Circle? There was no longer any such thing, though its name continued to appear on the frontispiece for a long time. This doesn’t mean that there were no longer any Yiddish writers in town. It was simply difficult to find them. The majority did not attend the Yiddish Culture Club, except for the prose writer and essayist Arye Posy, then the vice-chair of the Club and editor of Kheshbn, and the secretary, Zalman Shloser. Otherwise, almost no one. The well-known poet Malke Heyfits-Tuzman [Heifetz-Tusman], whom I met later, rarely appeared. So, too, Avrom Golomb, known in the Yiddish cultural world as a pedagogue and theoretician of integral Jewishness, author of many volumes. By then he was ill and rarely emerged from his home, though he did not cease his creativity. The Yablon Center, whose chair was, as mentioned, Khayim Shvarts, retained few of the “former leftists” and disaffected Yiddish writers who still lived in Los Angeles. So there was no Writers’ Circle.
And yet, how was I to meet with Yiddish writers whose names I had known and whose works I had read in American Yiddish journals? It just so happened that I met up with a broad-shouldered, short Jew with brown hair and a radiant face, who introduced himself thus: “I am called Yankl Fridman [Freedman], am a correspondent of the Mapam [left wing newspaper] Yisroyl shtime [“Israel Voice”], I once wrote correspondence for the Morgn frayhayt [pro-Communist “Morning Freedom,” daily, then weekly]. I’ve heard that you’ve arrived from Poland, so there is a proposal I have for you. We are planning to establish a club named for Mordkhe Anilyevitsh [Mordecai Anielewicz, leftwing Zionist, young leader of the United Fighters Organization in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising] and at our first meeting we would like you to talk about Anilyevitsh. You’re from there, after all.” I did not ask whom he meant by “we.” I understood without a word. These were probably “formers…” I agreed. I knew something about Anilyevitsh, though I had not been in the ghetto. I well knew the area of Warsaw at the lower banks of the Vistula, Powiszlie, where Mordkhe Anilyevitsh grew up, and I was also somewhat familiar with the atmosphere surrounding Ha’Shomer Ha’Tzair [left Zionist youth group]; so I decided to speak of all this. At Yankl Fridman’s request I provided a photo of Anilyevitsh, taken from Ber Mark’s book “Uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto.” He had the photo enlarged, framed, and placed on a stool at the window of the private home where the first meeting of the Anilyevitsh Club was held in Los Angeles. The club did not have a long life, but I do remember that gathering because I met there two people, Yiddish poets whose names I had known earlier: Shmuel Dan and Pintshe Berman. We greeted each other as good old friends and each of them presented me with a copy of his book. Shmuel Dan’s was a book of lyrics and poems, In last fun teg [“In the Day’s Burden”], published in Israel in 1959; Pintshe Berman’s book of lyrics, In geroysh fun vint [“In The Roar of the Wind”], also published in Israel, in 1970.
Now I page through the books again and recall the first impression made on my by their authors. Shmuel Dan’s appearance was that of a sturdily-built Jew of very short stature with the remains of a handsome forelock and somewhat protruding eyes that had probably seen a great deal. Pintshe Berman, by contrast, was the opposite of him. A tall Jew with greying hair and a face gentled by time. A longish nose topped by a pair of thick spectacles, through which gazed benevolent eyes, he seemed to be a quiet and modest person, as were his lyrics and as he proclaims in his poem, A yidisher dikhter [“A Yiddish Poet”], which opens his book, “In the Roar of the Wind”: “My word is stiller than the windblown grass.” He certainly carried with him the quiet of the Polyesa landscape, its woods and swamps, where he was born in 1892. Pintshe Berman published poems and stories in various American newspapers and journals and authored three poetry collections. He left this world in 1974 in Los Angeles.
As I re-read Shmuel Dan’s poems I always see before me the figure, the person, whom I met years ago, and it seems to me that he could not have thought of a more appropriate title for his book, “In the Day’s Burden.” He looked as though he carried all the weight of that burden on his broad shoulders. He was born in the Polish shtetl of Pultusk in 1897 and came to America in 1914, at the age of 17. And as young as he was, he was unable to find a place for himself. There were no golden coins awaiting him in the Golden Land. So he wandered from one end of the country to the other, from Mississippi to California, laboring hard everywhere and finally went off with the Jewish Legion to the Land of Israel [British detachment in World War I]. He did not remain there for long, either. Upon his return to America he published a number of poems and then fell silent as a writer for over twenty years. It was only in his fifties that he began to publish his broadly-breathing, vagabond lyrics and poems in the Yiddish press. His book “In the Day’s Burden,” appeared in 1959. In his poem, Gezang fun mayne reglayim [“The Song of My Legs”], he writes: “Legs/pacers of mine,/in my deeply delayed rush,/do not desert me/serve me yet awhile./There’s still a long way to go.” The date—1956. Well, so Shmuel Dan went on along his difficult way until 1972, when he perished here, in Los Angeles.
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