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Recovering Yiddish Culture in Los Angeles

Caroline Luce, Author

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Peretz Hirschbein: Jews in Los Angeles

“Jews in Los Angeles” by Perets Hirshbeyn (Peretz Hirschbein)
As appears in Kheshbn (The Reckoning), vol. 1 (1946): 58-62.
Translated by Mark L. Smith.
[Translator’s note: The many words underlined were written in English, but with Yiddish letters (including the title). This essay is not, however, an example of “Yinglish.” Hirschbein was a well-known Yiddish author and playwright long before coming to America and was considered the doyen of Yiddish cultural life in Los Angeles. His use of English words in this essay is for effect. The work is fiction, not autobiography.]

(A Gift to Eliyahu Tenenholts)

You want to know my name? Ha-ha-ha . . . The name my parents gave me has come to nothing. A name is nothing and still more nothing. I see that you want to know why I sleep outdoors. It’s already twenty-five years that I sleep between Jewish cottages. The reason I sleep outdoors between the houses with a stone under my head . . . my former name was Yankev [Jacob]. I know very well that Jacob also slept on a stone.
You want to know what I have there in the little pack? A tales [tallit; Jewish prayer shawl, worn in the morning]. So that no one will see, I pray at night and look toward the stars. At night, I have no trouble. The stars are my good friends.
My name is now Shlesl Knaknisl (Crazy-Man Nutcracker). In Boyle Heights, I once had a little palace. Now, there is a little shed with chickens there. And you think I spend all day knakn [cracking] nuts, do you? You’re making a mistake. I knak [bang] my own head to extract a bit of wisdom at night, and if I pray under the stars, my head is a good boy. Yes, I’ve already been in Los Angeles for twenty-five years. Why am I alone? And not a married man? The city has too many geese. Beautiful geese and ugly geese. I have still not got a goose for me. So, I am a bachelor and a crazy-man torn apart from everyone. If I looked at a goose, a Jewish goose, and would be in love with her, she laughed and said: “You’re a damn fool — don’t look for young women. Marry a fish or a lobster. You won’t have any trouble.” So, better put, I’m a crazy-man broken off from everyone, but not broken away from the Jewish Jew-hell, where people slap our heads as if our heads were troublemakers.
Do not think the majority of Jews in Los Angeles and across the country are not broken crazy-men. From where have they broken away? They have broken away from the Jewish home. They think they are in paradise. But they are in hell. I always sleep outdoors at night and look into the windows and I see the crazy-men. One turns here and turns there, and he thinks he is touching the stars with his hand.
There is a Jew who is a goat. He thinks he has a beard. No one sees the beard. But he believes he has a Jewish beard and that the Almighty combs his beard for him. But a goat is a goat. We have plenty of such goats who don’t know that their nose is Jewish and that on top of their nose sits Adam; in one hand is Cain and in the other is Abel, ha-ha-ha.
And there is a Jew who thinks he’s a gopher. So, he sits in the ground and is blind. The trouble that Jews have — that he does not want to see. The gopher is like cholera. It gnaws at the ground and eats what the people have planted, and the Jew who is a gopher, he believes he is sitting in the ground and that no one sees him. Therefore, he himself also doesn’t see the Jewish people, who are swollen with trouble and die before their time, as if their enemies were able to tear out their hearts. And another Jew thinks he is an eagle, an odler [in Yiddish, an eagle] I mean. He flies high up, he touches the mountaintops, and he may eat anything; even bacon he may eat. He can give the pig a lick and a sniff. He is not on the ground. He is between heaven and earth. He has no trouble with Jews. He doesn’t want to trouble with them. To him, a Jew is a “prominent person,” a stubborn man, who wants to be a Jew only because people hate him and want to wring his neck. To him, a Jew is a monkey who could become a person but doesn’t want to. To him, this is the Jew, the stubborn man, who ought to have become a person and not a Jew three thousand years ago, and then the Jewish people would not have had any more trouble.
There is a Jew who thinks he swims like a fish in the sea among Christians. It’s good for him that he isn’t among the Jews. It’s good for him that he swims and doesn’t know there are sharks and that sooner or later a shark will grab him and tear him to pieces. Oh, the torn and broken crazy-men who have fallen away from the Jewish home. Scratch him because he itches. Stroke his peyes [peyot; where a traditional, unshaven Jewish man’s sidelocks would be] because he is already not a Jew. He has become a person, and to be a Jew is a dirty thing. To be a Jew, one digs a pit in which to be buried. Swimming in the sea, in the wide-open water, can only be done by a person and not a Jew. God-willing, he is able to become a Christian and have the world in his pocket. A Jew has holes in his pocket. A Jew has holes in his head. And a Jew should count his fingers; he will discover that, instead of five fingers, he has only three. Such is a Jew in his eyes, who is not even born of his “Ma.” A Jew grows like a piper noter [mythical monster], which never has a home. And it’s good for him that he swims in water, and the sharks can gobble him up like lobsters, ha-ha-ha.
And there are, among the crazy-men, those who behave like a turtle. They want to be able to hide the Jewish head and also the feet under the shell, crouched entirely inside — and no more Jew! A turtle is the one who crawls out, and if there is danger — is gone. Grab him and he hides, and he believes that he is hidden. But if someone throws a stone at a turtle, the turtle is destroyed. So believes that Jew, that he can hide himself, ha-ha-ha. There is nowhere to hide oneself. And there is a Jew who behaves like a peacock, a pave [in Yiddish, a peacock] I mean. He has a tail that he can spread wide. He can give a cry that everyone hears. He has every sort of color, and is a great bigshot. He can stand on a fence, and at times fly up onto a roof and fuss with his feathers and shout at the world: “I am a peacock; look at me and have pleasure!” All of the crazy-men think this, that the world is all theirs, and sleeping with the head on a stone — that is prohibited. And protecting oneself, if one is a Jew, this one also should not do.
And there is a Jew, a crazy-man, who behaves like a turkey, like an indik [in Yiddish, a turkey], ha-ha-ha. The turkey thinks he puffs himself up and is as big as the whole world. He can swallow up a whole world, ha-ha-ha. And the Jew who puffs himself up, does he know with what he has inflated himself? With Christian pride, and he thinks he is filled with Christian greatness . . . But if a Jew puffs himself up, inflates himself like a turkey — he explodes, ha-ha-ha. Because no one can climb out of his own skin. Only those who believe that one should not have any Jewish skin, that people beat a Jewish skin with iron rods. An un-crazy-man knows that he has already lived thousands of years, that he lives in a world with much trouble, where one can take the Jew, dig him a hole, and bury him alive in the hole — he should eat worms, or the worms will eat him. That is the Jews’ trouble through all the years.
And there is a Jew, a crazy-man, who thinks he is a rooster, a chicken, that can crow. He crows on the fence. He crows in the tree, he crows to the sun, and he believes that with his crowing he can drag the sun from the sky. This Jew who crows, he is not a Jew. He thinks that the world is already filled with goodness, and he can already be whatever he wants — but not a Jew. A time will come when he will scratch the Jewish skin, ha-ha-ha. Because the Jewish skin is already an old skin. But in the grave, it makes no difference to the worms who one lays inside; they eat him. And there is a Jew who thinks he is a squirrel, a veverkele [in Yiddish, a little squirrel]. He jumps from tree to tree, but from the Jewish tree, from the Bible-tree, from there he has already jumped down, ha-ha-ha. Once he hid himself in a hole, not wanting anyone to see him. Because he has a Jewish nose and Jewish eyes, he jumps from tree to tree, ha-ha-ha.
There are not many birds, I mean feygelekh [in Yiddish, little birds] who hold themselves together because they know the hawk has an eye on them. The robber-bird is searching all around for them. They hold themselves together. Likewise, there are a few Jews who join together and have dreams about a better world. How many such Jews are there in Los Angeles and the United States who have not climbed out of their skin? One can count on the fingers such Jews who know they are Jews. These carry the world on their shoulders. Who is the lord and master over us — this they know. They have not climbed out of their Jewish skin. And although it’s bad to be a Jew, it’s good to be a Jew and see with both eyes the trouble that we have and the pleasure that runs from the nose, ha-ha-ha! These Jews, who have not climbed out of their skin, they are like the ants, I mean the murashkelekh [in Yiddish, little ants]. They hold themselves together and, like an ant, one carries on himself pieces and crumbs; one carries things that are heavier than the ant. Thus are the Jews who hold themselves together, going through fire and water together. Carrying on their head bricks and whole houses, carrying on their heads the Jewish world and never becoming tired, because they are Jews.
Who am I, who hates the Jew who made an escape and thinks he is in paradise? I too am a crazy-man, but I wander among Jews. By night, when I put on the tales and look to the stars, the stars say to me: “You are a Jew who has already lived thousands of years. The Almighty watches over you and over all Jews. You have endured everything and you will live like a people, and although you live among enemies, you will live and will live to see better times.” When the stars say this to me, I cry and wipe my eyes with the tales. “You Jews are among enemies,” the stars say to me, “but you will live like we stars live. One time a star fell down. But the majority of the stars are in the sky.” When I hear this, I cry silently so the crazy-men should not hear my crying. They might choke on my crying, ha-ha-ha. I cry over their loss to us and the stars comfort me. It is good that I can cry myself out and wash away my trouble, ha-ha-ha . . .

October 1945
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