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Recovering Yiddish Culture in Los Angeles

Caroline Luce, Author
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Shia Miller: Memorial by Yankev Glatshteyn

Yankev Glatshteyn, "S. Miller"
in In tokh genumen: esayen (The Heart of the Matter: Essays), 1949-59, (Buenos Aires, 1960): 328-333.
Translated by Tamar Schneider Levin.

S. Miller’s death is a shock for everyone because we were so accustomed to the idea that he had had a reprieve, and was writing through, not surviving through his days, so that when he released his last artistic breath we were left facing the bitter truth that S. Miller had truly left us.
Some twelve years ago when I happened to be in Los Angeles, and he was still venturing out now and then, in his singular fashion he gave me the keys to the City, with the reserved, unsentimental friendship characteristic of his writing, and his attitude to all his protagonists, whether negative or positive.
In their anxiety for him, all the best readers in the city shielded him from the least bit of aggravation. When I arrived in Los Angeles right after the appearance of an article that I had written about his novel “Dor hafloge (Discordant Generation),” I was warned by some of his closest friends that certain comments meant as laudatory were taken as insults, and that Miller might be vexed or angry.
But like a true aristocrat, and self confident writer, he welcomed me with the wholehearted intelligence he possessed in speech and in life. He left his home to speak publicly at an event in my honor. He strained himself to participate in a reception for me and never lost a chance to decry petty literary grievances against me or other friends.
At that time, Miller’s older friend and rebbe, Lamed Shapiro was also suffering; Peretz Hirshbein was still alive in the land of the sick, though he had already been conquered and defeated. H. Rosenblatt the dear, friendly elder with tens of laughing and wise wrinkles on his face was still alive. The skhine of Yiddish classical creativity rested on Los Angeles even though the big three were already physically bowing towards sunset. The frailest of them and the youngest was Sh. Miller.
Everyone knew that he could expire at any time, but simply because they were so accustomed to his eighty pounds, to a person who could infuse the spirit of his choked breath with an air of of physicality, a touch of earthiness, they singled out the nearly dead for a long life. It didn’t occur to anyone that he would nonetheless be ripped away at age 62, an age of culmination for his body, but not for his light that burned with inner life, ebullient creativity and momentum. In truth, his momentum was always a race with death, conniving to outsmart and fool it to gain a little time to write all that he still wanted to express.
Because of this he invented a compact writing style that allowed him to squeeze a lot of life and life experiences into each story. He was involved with building a world of American Jews, with their ambitions, worries, moxie, hustle, grasping impatience and certain spiritual needs. He was artistically interested in noting what we deem superfluous, what we have lost, and how little we have provided for future generations. And of how we have spiritually influenced our children, the good and the bad, those pulled away from us and those who ran away.
Through the riches of hundreds of his shorter and longer stories, and his novel Dor hafloge (Discordant Generation) also a setting for many episodic tales, there hangs a huge communal sigh, that the entire Jewish progress is a vanity of vanities that doesn’t have the heft to sustain itself and nurture Jewish homes. Jewish wealth is without worth because it doesn’t contain, with few exceptions, any Jewish grace, any specific Jewish value. These are either crushed or estranged. Not only does the Jew assimilate in a disturbing way, but his possessions, his business dealings, have no Jewish grounding.
S. Miller wrote like a musician. He wielded a tuning fork and created a Jewish musical language without any sentimentality. He was a modern prose composer who never broke into tears or sighs. He built dialogue with his timer in hand so that a monologue was never a smidgen too long. His monotone protagonists were given monotonous language that nonetheless was never boring.
He was interested in giving voice to the street rhythms of American conversation. He did this masterfully. From the entire estrangement from Yiddish language that was often savaged (rhetorically speaking) he created an original melodic style that twinkles through his stories, with an assumed outsider’s voice. There is a lot of humor in the conversations of his characters and within the voice of the author. It is pleasant on the ear and the perceptive reader’s eye.
The American landscape elevates the prose on the page. The Yiddish becomes blended with our familiar foreignness. He shows Yiddish defending itself against attack, and even surrendering a bit, but emerging victorious in his hands.
S. Miller is not a celebratory writer. Even holidays are viewed with prosaic eyes, but he is far from a dry scribbler recording what he sees. He inhabits his own spiritual world filled with saints and devils. This world is completely his own and it is appraised with the writer’s sensitivity.
Miller was widely read even though his themes were unpopular - Jewish America without a hint of local sentimental, nostalgic prose. He found his own path: America’s breadth, America’s spaciousness. He read and studied the great American writers thoroughly. He didn’t enter their academy, but allowed them to influence him in a limited way until it started to threaten his originality.
Despite his wholehearted love of remaining at home, Miller was remarkably skilled at living life. He had a lively interest in many fields, knowing that everything would be useful. He constantly studied with all his senses, especially his ear. He had a deep concern for the writer’s professionalism. The information in his work is flawless. Before he sat down to write he was certain that his plan, his blueprint, was correct, and that whatever information it contained was accurate. In this respect he was like all great writers who first of all inform themselves in order to be able to make their story believable even when depicting an experience in a newly repackaged way.
Therefore Miller always displays a skilled, polished homeyness. If he wrote about a field of work, he understood it thoroughly. Physically tried it. Whether he wrote about business, speculation, the pastimes of youth, newspaper life, legal procedures, he had an insatiable, thorough curiosity that served him well. He was an eternal student whose knowledge increased day by day. Considering how physically weak he was, always on slippery ground on unsteady legs with a dozen serious illnesses, one marvels at Miller’s dedicated studiousness and days and nights of writing. Witness to this is his masterful body of work.
It’s idle to speculate what S. Miller would have given us had he been healthy. It’s possible that his health would have so joyfully drawn him into life that he would have bequeathed us less than when, like Proust, he wrote of life from his sick room. It’s also possible that he would have enlarged his artistic laboratory. In his restrained, outsider’s meditations he is still lyrical and steeped in the sorrow of his own limited life; a life lived in his last years only in conversation with his closest friends. Miller was sharp, clever, extremely ethical, not elitist, well-mannered. His protagonists rarely display these qualities. He didn’t elevate his Jewish world with the metaphysics of our melancholy selves. He is thoroughly right, like a person who sees clearly, but he was not a seer of what is essential. Most of the time he tried out his cleverness and artistry on not-too-interesting Jews perhaps encountered in his life, but he wasn’t able to kneed them into his artistic world.
It’s possible that one needs to bring out imagined beauty and goodness in Jewish life - maybe it would be more correct to say surround it in fantasy, and Miller was not interested in fantasy. Here in his own city lived beautiful, warm Jews who were kept warm by him, went to him as to a rabbi, and loved him. But in his artistic world, Miller portrayed callous, cold folk, without prospects, whose hopeless existence is neither explained nor clarified. The artist was correct, the protagonists were correct, and the sentence was also correct, but our necessary sense of vindication was missing in Miller’s construction of Jewish America.
Every story contains a miniature of Miller in his entirety, with his great knowledge and his stricken community, with his nod at the futility of life on a carousel that hastens us nearer to the end, and even when one stops for a while and one wants to save oneself, the Angel of Death is already behind our shoulders.
Such is Miller’s last published story, “The Old Fool” in “Die goldene kayt.”* The businessman Rubinstein suffers a heart attack, sees himself when he recovers and counts his steps in the mirror of a person who almost runs him over, hurrying in anger after his own Angel of Death. Rubinstein sneaks in a chess game with a friend when his wife is not at home, and dies at dawn thinking that he alone knows the secret of life.
The story leads to death and is characteristic of Miller’s lasting legacy. It contains all of Miller’s virtues, from fine construction, good language, his singular style, well-orchestrated American Jewish dialogue, conversation without a smidgen of vulgarity, even for language purists. It also contains a rare epic quality. Throughout Miller’s compact writing style and the subject of the rush toward death, the story is built with a malleable calm as if the author himself had lots of time. Only an inner laconic voice tells us that the writer has unfurled it from his own mood, from counting the days and nights in a deadline of creativity, from a desire to leave enough breath for more and more.
What S. Miller managed to accomplish while struggling with his difficult life is a rare and precious inheritance and an important part of young Yiddish creativity on American soil. We will return to Miller’s stories often and find in them even more artistic surprises because we will look to them to interpret or contrast the death chamber in which S. Miller did his work.

* “Die goldene kayt (The Golden Chain)" was a Yiddish literary journal edited by A. Sutzkever and published in Israel.
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