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Recovering Yiddish Culture in Los Angeles

Caroline Luce, Author

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Shia Miller: A Young Tree

A yunger boym - A Young Tree
appears in Bleter faln (Fallen Leaves) (Los Angeles: [s.n.] 1926): 225-236.
Translated by Tamar Schneider Levin.

Six feet tall, broad straight back, tall shoulders, a firm rhythmic step, an amiable face, a lighthearted glance, succulent lips, when speaking he’d look a person squarely in the eye - Hirschfeld’s portrait.
If a girl only saw him walking, she fell in love with his walk, his tall shoulders, his proud head; if she met his glance, she’d lower her eyes and Hirschfeld could draw her head to his chest, stroke her hair, lift her up and carry her off wherever he wished.
He could have done it, but he didn’t because he was sick. Very few knew, and those that did know - father, mother, sister and brothers - couldn’t believe it.
When he first saw the red mark of his sickness he didn’t know what it was, he felt no pain, and when the doctor told him what it meant, and called it a warning of a life threatening danger, he was astounded and angry. He had an urge to take on the puny doctor with his narrow head and rounded back, give him a crack on the chin, send his glasses falling, and leave him bloodied with a red mark of his own. But the doctor appeared to show no concern for what the handsome young man was thinking. He spoke, shared his opinion and knowledge, and gave him sound advice.
The advice consisted of rest, rest for a year, two, three, and if necessary more to stop the enemy.
Hirschfeld reigned in the angry voices ready to battle his deadly enemy. But the enemy, more accurately the thousands of tiny enemies that lay in wait somewhere inside his strong body were little scared of angry voices. Amused by resistance and rage the enemy worked in silence.
Every morning Hirschfeld saw the red mark.
Hirschfeld surrendered. He who had wandered in the trenches somewhere in “enemy territory,” looked death in the face unafraid, who had been “scratched" by shrapnel, saw that this enemy, his inner enemy, could not be fought in open combat. He must proceed quietly and cunningly, and above all, be prepared for a long siege.
The latter worried him more than anything else. To fight came naturally, so he had enlisted, but for a quick fight, red or dead, and here he was faced with red and dead.
Rest, rest, rest.
How wearisome, how tiresome, how boring, what a dragged out illness, what an interminable fight, but that’s how it is, and if you can’t cross over, you must cross under. He lay down to rest.
It felt strange in his resting place among his sick friends, people in their thirties at least, worn out, depressed, suffering, with backs bent from sedentary labor, wrinkled brows from worry about sustenance, anxiety about the future, and he among them, a taller, slimmer, "healthy” youth.
What is he doing among them? Is he really as ill as they are?
Not only he himself asked this, but those around him questioned more than once:
“Are you sick too?”
And he saw that in their mistrustful eyes they were saying: “Would that your illness was ours.”
He would answer with a smile, "Yes, I’m sick too, maybe even sicker than you.” But deep within he thought he was healthier than they. He’d give his arms a tug, feel his hard muscles, a result of physical exercise, and delight in his strength.
But when morning came, and with it the red mark, Hirschfeld would feel unconsolable, far more unconsolable than those around him.
Day in, day out the mark appeared, so that one day when by chance he didn’t see it, he wondered and joked at his own expense:
“I guess I’m getting well, another sixty years like this and I’ll be cured!”
He joked to himself, enjoyed seeing and hearing others joke, and at times shared a joke with another.
True, lying on his bed in the morning, during the day or at nightfall, wistful thoughts would come to mind, especially in lovely, longing twilights a loneliness would befall him. Although he didn’t know whether Bialik was the name of a Jewish writer or a small town somewhere in Russia, he would still in the time of mercy plead and ask:
“They say that youth exists. Where is mine?”
He foresaw twilights when he, a healthy young man and a young healthy girl would withdraw somewhere in an abandoned corner of the park.....
It was impossible.
Happy, worry-free, military trenches and now a bed, this bed.
Is he actually sick, is the illness really inside him?
But he couldn’t remain doubtful too long and he didn’t want to delve deeply into the matter either. Why? You don’t get healthy that way, quite the opposite, it gets in the way of restoring health, and he so longs to get well, to return to a lively, happy life.
Why are his fellow patients so sad, so solitary, why do they amuse themselves by listening to Kol Nidre, “Ayli, Ayli,” and other “classic” heartrending, essentially gypsy melodies? True, he too likes classical music, but classical doesn’t necessarily mean long, sad, slow moving. How about something fast, joyous, that causes feet torise to dance and fingers to snap, evokes a smile on your face. Let it be a kazatzka, a waltz, a chassidic dance, Negro jazz, as long as it’s upbeat, because it’s so damned gloomy here.
Maybe it’s time to leave the melancholy sick and settle among the healthy. Who would accuse him of being sick?
He thinks it over and decides he likes his appearance.
How would anyone tell that he is sick. They won’t know, and when they find out, when his inner enemies betray him, then he’ll need to flee, because the healthy ones hate him, avoid him, are afraid of him, of his hide.
The healthy....
Maybe if he weren’t sick, he’d would avoid the sick too. He recalls that he used to recoil at the sight of a cripple. Only now being ill, seeing how the healthy scorn him, does he hate the healthy with extreme hatred. He can’t stand the sight of them, and doesn’t want to see them, but they insist on looking at him, want to speculate about him, want to feel sorry for him.
Here they come day in day out, Jewish men, women with young children, boys, girls, and they all want to see the sick, the real invalids, and taking him for a healthy one, they ask him to point out the sick ones, the really sick ones. And when he asks why it’s so important, what do they think they will see, they all, man, woman, boy, girl, have the same answer:
“Nothing special, we just want to see them.”
And like spectators in a zoo they walk around, stand and consider the sick, these people with all their senses, healthy people, not one of them seemingly hiding a defect inside themselves.
Among the visitors are many, very many who ought soon to be replacing those lying in beds, and yet they feel sorry for the sick, and ask complete strangers:
“How are you? Have you been here long?”
And before they leave they become infected with phthisiophobia [pathological fear of tuberculosis].
How he hates that pitying look. He can’t stand it, and as soon as he sees someone coming, he’s out of his bed. Not while he’s living will pity fall on him, not him. He’s still healthy enough not to elicit pity.
Hirschfeld protects himself from sympathetic glances, but can one protect oneself from a breeze? Just so can one protect oneself from anxiety and pity.
On an overcast, gloomy day it happened that Hirschfeld, whose moods reflected the weather, also felt gloomy. Lonely, lying cradled in melancholy and self-pity, he fell into a light afternoon nap. Napping, he heard someone approach.
“A visitor” he thought, but immediately comforted himself with the thought that on such a day they would not come. Yet he hears unfamiliar steps, barely opens his eyes, looks out as through a crack and sees that he was fooled, he indeed had visitors. He curses them silently. Even on such a day they aren’t to lazy to come, and he closes his eyes. They’ll see that he is asleep and walk by not wanting to bother him. But mighty is the source of pity in humankind, and approaching his bed, they stop and he hears someone sighing,
“Such a young tree!”
It lifted him from his bed. He sat up, wild, eyes open wide, open mouthed, he looks for a word powerful enough, an authentic insult to hurl in their faces, to spit in their eyes, but the old woman, apparently the one who sighed, looks at him with a pitiful expression, and a young girl greets him with a smile. Oh, the smile of a healthy young girl to a handsome sickly lad!
He was stunned. His lips moved but his tongue, his teeth did not. But it seems that his eyes spoke. Without saying another word, the visitors abandoned his bedside leaving him alone.
His proud head bowed, he sat for quite a while looking downward, while his mind reeled with the realization that he himself had become an object of pity.
He! He who could still take on anyone who comes here and feels sorry for him. He could take them by the feet and toss them one by one like a ball. They’re sorry for him, want to stare at him. Would the young lady accompany him somewhere in the world of the healthy, would she be happy if he danced with her, pressed her close to his breast while here she sends him a pitying smile, expresses regret for “such a young tree?”
He can’t stand it anymore. He is not sick but well, damn it, he is just fine.
And the red mark?
He’ll pay it as much heed as last year’s white snow fall. He can boldly walk out into the healthy world, work and love like an ordinary person, and if he falls, he’ll fall suddenly. Wimps die a thousand times before their death, the bold and brave only once. He doesn’t want to be among the dead while he’s alive. “Such a young tree!” No more, no more, Hirschfeld!
He rose from his bed, straightened himself up, led with his hands, and with firm steps set off to pack his things, leave for the city to live, damn it live while he is still young and strong.
The doctor argued with him, tried to persuade and prove to him that what he was doing was foolish.
“Dying is easy whereas living is a serious undertaking. It’s much harder to live than to die” said the doctor waxing philosophically, quoting phrases he had read. But Hirschfeld had one excuse: He is young, strong, healthy, still wants to live, not lay in bed. The doctor tried angrily to convince him that he was ill, seriously ill, that in leaving to work and live among the healthy he was risking his life, and ---
“To risk doesn’t mean to lose, and loss is total doom." He just cant, can’t put aside his strength and energy, he needs to burn it up, he must do something. When he is brought down, when he can no longer raise a finger, when he is so helpless that he truly needs pity, then he will lay down and he won’t care any more.
“But now doctor, I’m off.”
A stubborn combatant against death and illness, Hirschfeld went out into the world of the healthy. He was prepared to die but a sudden, swift death.
He became a sought after member of society, girls lowered their eyes at his gaze, followed his step, and he delighted in his lively existence. At first the took pleasure in thinking about his situation.
“How well I lie, how nimbly I fool the world.”
He even fooled father and mother, never worried them with the truth. Later on he even forgot he was fooling himself. Carried off in the whirlwind of city life he forgot he was sick. He was Hirschfeld, the vigorous, handsome young man who was thinking about marrying dark eyed Stella, a spirited girl who had robbed him of more than one night’s rest.
But dark eyed Stella was not destined to be left a young widow. Suddenly, unjustly for Hirschfeld himself, the Messenger came for him. He marveled at how unfair it was. Certainly he was ready to be reminded but not in such an undeserved, demanding way. He was brought down like a study, strong tree when it is chopped off from below. Thus did Hirschfeld descend, and surprised by the suddenness of his fall, he became helpless. He no longer thought of starting or ending the fight. He no longer considered whether to hurry or slow down the process, to rest or toward death.
He resigned.
He lay helpless as a child and unconsciously awaited the Hand that would come to close his eyes forever. And when the Hand reached out and began to close his eyes, he no longer even felt the goodness of her haste, felt no pain, no regret, no self pity, and he no longer understood the pity of others. The last time before his surrender to the power to the Hand, cries and wails were still heard at his bedside along with the shout “Such a young tree!”
It was his mother’s cry, mourning the loss of her son, but this time Hirschfeld no longer jumped up out of resentment. The young tree was lying hacked down more by the angry, gruesome Hand.
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