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Recovering Yiddish Culture in Los Angeles

Caroline Luce, Author

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Peretz Hirschbein: Iber Amerike (excerpt)

Kalifornie - California
excerpt from Iber Amerike, New York: Literarisher Ferlag (1918): 185-193.


The calm ocean washes over the shore of California, the heart of the Golden West. California is so far away from New York, so far away… although it only takes five days to get here by train. It is much farther than the distance between New York and London and the journey is much more difficult even though the way from New York to California is over dry land.

California was given the title the Golden West in 1848. In that year a man called Sutter and another man called Marshall, who wanted to build a mill by a river on the north end of California, noticed flecks of gold in the earth beneath the clear waters. Gold! This magical word tore through their hearts with such power that it reverberated from one side of the world to another. Was there any place from which people did not come [to see the gold]? They came over the calm seas from China and Japan, from the shores of the Atlantic through the Colorado mountains; they traveled by foot and by wagon through the deserts of Utah and Arizona. They flocked here from all corners of Europe and America. Perhaps still today you may be able to find bones from these brave men, fortune seekers, scattered in the deserts.

Yes, this happened, but that was already sixty-nine years ago. In this country sixty-nine years ago is history. And important history, because at the time the United States only had twenty million people. Twenty-one years later the first railroad line was laid across this wide land, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and when they drove the last nail into the last rail, the nail was made of gold. This is how California became for ever know as The Golden West.

These days the whole world does not flock to settle here in the same way. Most people come here to spend time by the shores of the calm sea. California is not the largest state in terms of population, it has around three million residents.

Perhaps they dug up gold in the north side of California but this is not why California deserves to be called the Golden West. It is not the clinking of gold that causes the children of this country to see California in their dreams. They dream of the Golden West and in their dreams they see the golden oranges that shine out between thickly-leaved branches, out from amidst the deep green and juicy green colors. This is another kind of gold. It is another kind of dream for those who dwell by the shores of the angry Atlantic and it is a beautiful reality for those who have made their way across the Colorado mountains, cut through the deserts, and arrived here to this fertile strip of land that stretches along the edge of a calm sea bathed most of the year in rays of sunshine.

When they discovered gold in California the area was still empty. The desert stretched all the way to the sea. The United States paid Mexico a sum of fifteen million dollars for California and with it they also received the state of New Mexico. Even today most of the east of California is empty. Stone and sand, like in Arizona. And even though the world has an image of California as the most beautiful, plentiful corner of God’s Earth, a paradise on Earth where everything is in bloom, everything is green and lush, this isn’t entirely true.

In summer it does not rain here. During the summer everything dries out and burns up – aside from in those places where someone has labored to prevent it. And it warms the heart to think that if it weren’t for man’s willpower, his beautiful vision, California would still be as barren as Arizona. A visitor here would be met with only sand and stone and perhaps here and there a person with a strange fire in his eyes, for his soul has been driven to the devil, buried under the earth with together with the gold dust.

And the orange and citron trees here make your heart feel entirely differently than the fruit gardens in the old country. In the old country, especially in Russia, when we picture the fields and the peasant farmer, we imagine wheat and rye fields that have to be plowed and sewed before winter, so that the frost should not ruin the seed. In the spring the farmer waits for the snow to melt and allow the green grass to grow a little bit. In summer the farmer waits for the rain to come in time, and then labors hard until he manages to gather the wheat into bales or tied into sacks. It is only then that he will be able to get bread from the newly-grown rye… But in fruit gardens, or in orchards, you don’t have to do any labor. Someone planted it, a grandfather or a great-grandfather, and their inheritor must simply watch over the orchard and make sure the fence doesn’t get knocked down, that no thieves sneak in at night to shake the apples from the trees. The rest is handed to him by the spring, with summer’s permission. They do all of the work. [The only evidence of people’s work in creating the harvest is that] occasionally you see a tree in someone’s orchard that is whitewashed up to the braches – a precaution against worms.

But it is different in California, where it only rains in winter and you need the plants to be green and blooming all year long. You should see the tenderness with which people walk around the graceful orange trees. The trees always look young and vibrant, always look as though they were brand new, just as they did the first year that they were covered with blossoms and then with dark green fruit that swelled up with juice and clothed itself in bright gold. They circle the orange tree like an only daughter, like a young expecting mother. They take their time in the dozens of miles of row after row of orange trees as tall as people, with large, thick, curly tops, like green leafy locks of hair. The hair is flecked with juicy, golden oranges. The oranges are picked from each tree in its time, the soil under the tree is dug out and patted back in, and each stray weed at the base of the tree is pulled. In the winter, although in California there is nothing more than a light frost and from time to time, a cold, cold wind among the trees is enough to ruin their perfect green health. [The workers] have to warm them: under each little tree is a little kerosene heater. During the night men watch over the heaters to ensure that they don’t extinguish. This is how they keep the garden alive.

And what doesn’t grow here, as long as you have patience and have found a good piece of land? Apples, pears, plums, corn, wheat, barley, olives and figs, oats, carrots, and beets. But no area smells as sweet as those where they grow oranges, citrons, and lemons. The fine smell wafts over and through the neighborhoods in the regions where they grow, all the way to the traveler or gawker who passes through the wide streets.

Riches pour from the state of California onto its people. Its fields are wide and plentiful and the people of this state appear to be without the worries that people from the East exhibit.

The population here is also very international. The big cities are very colorful. There you can find Chinese men with their long ponytails and Russian Molokans with their long beards. It may be the only place in the United States where they don’t tear at the Chinese man’s long ponytail and leave the Molokan’s long beard alone.

The two largest cities in California, San Francisco and Los Angeles, though they are only twelve hours apart, are completely different in character and in appearance from one another. San Francisco looks like a large international hotel, where people from the whole world come only to spend a night; and Los Angeles looks like a rich uncle’s attractive apartment, with orchards, gardens, flowers, and a lot of dairy production. San Francisco still resounds with the sounds of gold mining, and Los Angeles smells like blossoms, glows with California poppies and blushes red with endless geraniums on the walls of the houses…

But here in this bountiful strip of land on the western edge of this country, something else, aside from fruit and food, also grows - something not very pleasant. There is a growing fear among the people of this country, who cannot free themselves of hatred inspired by racism.

As you stand at the shores of the calm sea, watching as the waves come to the shore and wash away the sand, it seems as though the same waves must break in the same way on the other side of the sea, on the shores of the faraway East where the children of the yellow races live. Members of these races are treated here as strangers and especially here in California there is a desire among natives to drive these people away. You can feel how the spirit of jealousy, hatred and even perhaps the spirit of war drift on the surface of the water that washes between the two continents.

If it weren’t for the Japanese, California would certainly not look as bountiful. California would certainly not produce such beautiful fruit. They led the way in making this land productive. And yet, even today they are still not allowed to own land. It is worth noting that sixty-five years ago the United States was the one who used their battleships to force Japan to open itself up for trade with foreign countries other than Holland, which up until that time was the only country that had the right to cross its shore. America prevailed, and perhaps it is America’s fault that this opened up a Pandora’s box: Japan now has become capable of European-style warfare, and it has begun to produce extremely cheap merchandise for the whole world to consume. And nevertheless it is Japan and China that are subject to ‘exception’ laws [in America.]

The Chinese have hardly even awoken yet, they have hardly even let their guns down from their shoulders, but the Japanese…

I don’t know if there would be as many raspberries, sweet carrots or blackberries, roses, chrysanthemums, cabbages and tomatoes in California if it weren’t for the Japanese who came here, once again [like so many others] to look for gold. Yet they aren’t allowed to own land here. The Chinese in their soft slippers, who wash laundry without protest, walk past you without once so much as lifting their eyes to look at you as they go by. The Japanese are also quiet, but from time to time they glance look at you. These Japanese, dressed elegantly, their thick black hair combed back with a side part and smeared pomade to keep the part in place, look at you with their narrow, crooked eyes sending a shiver down your spine, as though to say, “Oh, you foolish Yankee! What makes you think you are so great? Your army? Don’t you see how we make fools of you from head to toe by selling you cheap porcelain that was made here in your country, someplace in the middle of nowhere, and you idiots don’t even realize…”

All of the Japanese here at the seashore with their lotteries and other means of making people open their pockets and take out their cents to win a jar of candy, chocolates, toys, dolls, knick knacks – all genuine handmade with Japanese and Chinese fibers… You should stand far away and see how the Japanese with their pigeon English smooth talk the Americans as though they were small, foolish, impulsive children eager to spend the pocket money their mothers gave them: “Only ten cents, take a peek, for one strand [of tickets], you will win a whole box of candy, you will win a box of candy just like this!” A Japanese rascal calls out to a thin, happy Yankee who came here for pleasure by the sea. The Yankee holds out the strand and plays. “Give me another; the second chance is the lucky one.” The Yankee gives to him a second time and plays.

Here by the sea the game is a small one, not at all dangerous. The Yankee wants a box of chocolates to sweeten his life, and the Japanese man wants the ten cents. But somewhere far away, on the other side of the ocean, the Japanese man has a fatherland, has ministers, has countrymen, and also has a Mikado, and here, in Washington, there are silent infiltrators from his country. And it won’t be long until his fatherland negotiates with the leaders of our country in Washington, bargaining long and hard. These negotiations won’t be over ten cents and a box of chocolates but over the fact that raspberries grow and chrysanthemums bloom in California because of the Japanese and yet they cannot own the land on which they garden… And the naïve innocent people of this land believe and are afraid that Japan, sixty five years ago…. They are afraid and the hatred grows and the gap widens between the yellow and white races....


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