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Recovering Yiddish Culture in Los Angeles

Caroline Luce, Author
Moshe Shklar, page 1 of 8
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Moshe Shklar: A Short Stroll Through a Long Life (Pt. 1 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Unpublished autobiography of Moshe Shklar, Los Angeles 2011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 Four

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

It was, as usual, a hot summer’s day in the city. The sun singed and there was nowhere to hide. Perhaps to venture to the seashore, where there’s also hardly a place to hide from the sun except among the widely-spaced trees that people here call a park. I had long ago resigned from swimming in the sea. Neither my age nor my strengths were up to it. There was nothing for it but to get into the car and drive to Rancho Park, where the Jewish Federation had arranged a sort-of picnic or Festival of Jewish Culture.
I already knew that this type of Festival would have little to do with Yiddish culture. A genuine Yiddish word would not be heard, as it was not in the rooms and corridors of the Federation. Loud music would simply deafen one’s ears and the air would be permeated by the aromas of broiling shashlik, hamburgers and smoked sausages that are considered to be Jewish national delicacies. I generally dislike such gatherings of thousands of people in which the individual is lost along with his thoughts and feelings. Yet I still decided—a Jewish festival, after all, so one had to take one’s wife and son and drive to Rancho Park. We wouldn’t spend much time there; simply take a look at how Jews amuse themselves in America.
We came, we saw and were pleasantly surprised. Amid the spreading old trees of the park were placed colorful booths of books, though in English, covering Jewish themes. There was even a booth of the Yiddish Culture Club with a banner in Yiddish and carrying Yiddish books. Artists displayed their paintings of bearded Jews in prayer shawls and of Israeli landscapes. Loudspeakers hanging in the trees carried Hebrew songs that had a Jewish sound.
And suddenly I heard from some distance off the echo of Yiddish words. Was it just a hallucination? Or had I simply imagined it? My ears pointing like those of a hunting hound, I began to walk more and more quickly in the direction from which those Yiddish sounds emanated. And now I’ve reached the spot. Amidst a small gathering of people, a grey-haired man stands on a wooden stool with a book in hand, reading Yiddish poetry aloud. And people listen! And people applaud! So I ask someone standing nearby—a middle-aged Jew with a sun-tanned face—“Do you know who that is?” He looks at me as though I were from another world. “Don’t you know? That’s Khayim Shvarts (Chaim Schwartz).” So I watch Khayim Shvarts standing on the stool above the heads of the Jewish audience in Rancho Park, reading Yiddish poetry. He gesticulates with his hands like a real orator and his voice grows so much louder that it almost echoes among the trees as though it were bouncing off the old tree trunks, and it seems to me that I’m somewhere at a workers’ meeting on Dzika or Smocza Street in my hometown and the police might soon turn up to disperse the crowd.
But before the police arrive I hear Khayim’s spirited words: “My generation, armored in survival/strengthened in destruction, bouldered in the storm—/never will a lurking foe somewhere/wipe from the earth your bloodied spoor.” And the sound of renewed applause brings me back to reality. And I think: this is the Khayim Shvarts whose name I’ve known for a long time. But it was only his name I knew, and his poems published in the journal Yidishe kultur that used to arrive at my editorial desk in Warsaw. And here he is. A grey head of hair on a somewhat broad face with deep, smiling brown eyes, nothing like I imagined him from his declarative-fighting poems of days gone by.
When I later became more closely acquainted with Khayim Shvarts—the person and poet, his path from the Belarusian shtetl of Berezin where he was born in 1903, to Los Angeles where he labored mightily to support his wife and children while, at night, writing the poems that were full of pain and energy—I came to understand that beneath his declarative-fighting lines lay a deeply-feeling and pain-ridden heart. He tried to disguise his pain in the poems. He did so later, as well, when he lost his faith in “the banners of red” that were to have “pierced the dark of night.” It was his soul they had pierced. His poems became quieter, gentler. His national feelings came to be expressed in them.
Khayim Shvarts published five poetry collections in the course of a long, difficult life. The sixth, “When I Leave You,” appeared after his death, published by his children. He was not only a talented writer and lecturer but also a social activist, long-time leader of the [left wing] Los Angeles Yablon [Cultural] Center. He liked people and people liked him. His 90th birthday was publicly and joyfully celebrated in 1993, a year before he passed into eternity.
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