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Recovering Yiddish Culture in Los Angeles

Caroline Luce, Author

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Shia Miller: "Tolstoy's" Journal

"Tolstoys" tog-bukh - "Tolstoy's" Journal
appears in Bleter faln (Fallen Leaves) (Los Angeles: [s.n.] 1926): 267-279.
Translated by Tamar Schneider Levin.

Tolstoy - that’s the name Peskin gave him. Peskin. a Jew in his forties, tall, clumsy long hands and feet, an afflicted figure, sunken cheeks covered with beet-colored capillaries, seriously ill, forced to spend most of his time in bed, still made sure to make a joke at his own expense or that of his bedridden neighbors.
Having delivered the joke, he’d listen with delight to their laughter. But he himself did not laugh or even smile. When the laughter ended, he would pepper the joke with a witticism and listen happily to the renewed laughter, while he himself remained quiet.
Peskin was a jokester, not much of a talker, and when he came up with a witticism, you had to laugh, although his specialty was giving nicknames.
When a new patient arrived in his section of the hospital it was his job to greet him with “Sholem aleykhem,” size him up, say a few words and give him a suitable nick-name, like Posholtiel ["get lost" one], Eliakim, Shakespeare, Shammai, Jonah, Gedaliah, and the name stuck so that the newcomer soon forgot his first and second name and when someone called out “Posholtiel, Eliakim!....” he’d turn around knowing they were calling him. Peskin renamed Zibkov “Tolstoy” following their acquaintance.
Zibkov, a young man of twenty-nine, warm and somewhat intelligent, had finished a second-class city district school, afterward read Verbitzky’s booklets and completed his studies in a shop where he served as senior sales clerk. On arrival in the hospital he looked around at his neighbors, and although he found them emaciated, scrawny, and pale faced, he saw not the slightest sign that they were cream of the crop, or refined or intelligent and decided unhappily that everyone here was a boor and he was the only intellectual. He thought it not even particularly pleasant to find himself in such coarse company, but he consoled himself by thinking that he needn’t have much to do with them. He’d keep his distance. After all, he came here to rest and get well.
It seems though that Peskin didn’t realize how intelligent the newcomer was and in his usual manner came over to Zipkov, greeted him with a “Sholem aleykhem,” and when he received a cold “Aleykhem sholem” in return, didn’t give up.
Peskin was already a resident and knew that a newcomer doesn’t feel very festive so he went on with his questions, asking, “Where are you from?”
And learning that the newcomer came from Kiev, he wasn't shy about directly asking again, “Really from Kiev proper?”
“Yes” Zibkov answered with pride, “I’m a Kiever.”
Gavarite poh Rusku (Do you speak Russian)?” Peskin asked, pronouncing the words with an American-Yiddish accent.
Konyetshno (of Course).” Zibkov replied, “But how...?”
“What a question! I myself am from Moscow!”
"Can you get Russian books here?" Zibkov asked in Russian.
Peskin regarded Zibkov, listened to his Russian pronunciation, and decided that the guy was bluffing, he was not a Kiever. This idea quickly entered his mind as he worked on finding him a suitable nickname.
“Russian books?” He mulled over the request. “I myself even manage, thank God, without Turkish books. I’ll ask Shakespeare. He has the key to the library. Here he comes.”
“Hey, Shakespeare, come on over here.”
And by the time Shakespeare arrived, Peskin had chosen a name and made the introductions:
“Mr. Shakespeare, Mr Tolstoy wants a book, a Russian book. Do you have Russian books?”
“Russian books?”
Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Peskin looked each other over. Shakespeare offered a genial smile. Tolstoy, astounded by Peskin’s manner didn’t even manage to smile at all and soon carried himself off to bed.
“There are a few Russian books, “ Shakespeare remembered “but very few, really only a couple. In Yiddish there are many, some in English. Do you want a book Mr. Tol...?”
“Zibkov” Tolstoy answered hastily.
“My name is Nerenberg,” said Shakespeare introducing himself. “It’s his job, giving out nicknames. Be thankful that he chose Tolstoy, you could have been given a name like Padatzur, Tselpakhad, Yona....”.
“What kind of job is that, giving nicknames?”
“That’s just how it is Mr....Zibkov. This is a small town and everyone has a nickname. You’ll get used to it. It doesn’t bother me any more. At home I had a nickname too. Where are you from?”
“From Kiev.” Zibkov said proudly.
“You don’t say.. from Kiev? How does a Jew get to come from Kiev?”
“Studied there,” Zibkov answered, “I was a student in the komertsheske (business school).”
The word komertsheske came out clearly but not without the necessary breadth - ko-mer-tshes-ke.
Nerenberg who had never been to Kiev in his life, and who had a limited understanding of the komertsheske took a look at Zibkov, discovered in him an intelligent face and immediately found him worthy of respect as an educated man. He therefore started to apologize for not having any Russian books.
“There are a few books, by Schnitzler, Hansun”
“Schnitzler?” Zibkov remarked, “Never heard of him.”
“It’s a translation from German” Nerenberg explained. “I myself don’t read Russian, I am, alas, a Galitzianer, but here I’m the librarian. That’s why I’m called Shakespeare. Arriving here, like you, I asked for a book. The librarian at the time, a baffoon of a guy, asked whether I wanted one in Yiddish or English. Unfortunately I asked for English. He looks at me and asks if I have the title of a book I’d like. In my entire life I‘d read maybe three books in English, so I said that whatever he gives me would be fine. So the clown goes away and brings me a volume of Shakespeare, and Peskin happens to see it and crowns me with the name “Shakespeare.”"
“Is there anything by Verbitzky?" Zibkov asked having examined the history of the nickname.
"In Russian, no, in Yiddish there’s “Hero of our Times,” nothing more I think. We do have Artzibashev’s “Sanin,” “Women...”"
"You have “Sanin?” Zibkov asked with enthusiasm.
“Yes, it’s here” Nereberg answered, “but I don’t know if it’s on the shelf, it’s grabbed like matzo water.”
“When it comes in, please be good enough to hide it for me.”
Nerenberg promised to do so, and Tolstoy almost befriended Shakespeare, finding him, although not an intellectual on his level since he knew no Russian, still more intelligent than the others.
Tolstoy with Shakespeare’s help, started to study Russian literature in Yiddish translation. He had already read “Sanin”, “Women”, “Millions”, “By the Last Stroke”, had taken a step into Polish literature reading Pshibishevski’s ”Sensible Person” and on Shakespeare’s recommendation, got ready to read Sholem Asch’s “Motke the Thief” because it was a book as good as “Sanin.”
Tolstoy and Shakespeare discussed between themselves who was the best writer, Artsibashev, Pshibishevski or Sholem Asch, and aside from literary discussions they enjoyed open, intimate conversations.
Tolstoy, already used to his name, trusted Shakespeare as he trusted his wife whom he had married a year ago. She was a school teacher, a highly educated girl, and he shared her letters, every day there was a letter, and insisted that he admire her lovely handwriting, and her English, and when he wrote an answer he showed it to his friend.
Shakespeare, a Jew with meager knowledge of the English language, complimented Tolstoy on his written English. If only he knew the language so well, he’d now be better off. On that score Tolstoy modestly replied that it’s hard for him to write in English, he must consult a dictionary, write and then rewrite a letter. On the other hand, Russian flows easily but his wife doesn’t know Russian. She’s born here. And bad as it was that his wife knew no Russian, the fact that she is native born brought her atonement.
Shakespeare spread the word to everyone about Tolstoy’s knowledge of languages, what an expert he is in Russian, and even knows English well, that he writes his wife, a school teacher, letters in English. While Peskin tried to contest this, saying that Tolstoy was a bluffer, Shakespeare defended his honor.
Tolstoy could defend himself. He showed his defamers that they are ignoramuses,who don’t know Russian, asking them how to say onion or raisons in Russian. After thinking for a while, they answered: onionieh and raisoniki. Tolstoy
responded with a triumphant smile: “That’s in goyish, not Russian. In Russian,” he began self assuredly “it’s luk, luk is onion, and raisons is izium, i-zium.”
Having had his say, he turned away in a dignified manner as befits a scholar. His defamers had to admit that Tolstoy actually did know Russian. The only one that wouldn’t give in was Peskin.
He insisted that everything that Tolstoy knows is a bluff. He, Peskin, knows Russian as well as Tolstoy. This annoyed Tolstoy, but he chose not to fight.
Peskin was well liked for his humor, jokes, funny faces, nicknames. Tolstoy thought he’d nail him to the post one day. One time he actually asked Peskin how he’d translate the expression ”that’s a long way to go” into Russian. Peskin admitted good naturedly that he didn’t know, but he’d bet a dose of epsom salt that Tolstoy wouldn’t be able to say the something else in Russian:
“Okay, let’s hear it," Tolsty answered in a challenging, self confident tone.
How do you say in Russian, “Since fools fooled themselves, I have never met such a fool.”
The onlookers burst out laughing, Tolstoy protested that that was not a serious question, but Peskin held his ground, saying that one who knows Russian, a true expert, must know how to say anything.
Peskin didn’t want to acknowledge Tolstoy, and there was friction between them. When Zibkov sat down to write his daily letter to his wife, Peskin would climb off his bed, and say to anyone he saw, raising a finger to his mouth,
“Sh, sh, sh, Tolstoy is writing!”
One day Peskin noticed that Tolstoy was writing in a large, black, bound notebook, and he announced to the public that Tolstoy was writing a book, a journal.
Within a day all the patients knew that Tolstoy was writing a book.
“He must be writing down how many times a day he yawns.” someone joked.
“He needs to write down his bluffs so he won’t forget them from one time to the next, and not slip up, you know.”
“Hold on now,” Peskin said disparaging all guesses, “I’m telling you that Tolstoy is writing a book, a journal or another kind of book but it’s a book.”
“Maybe he really is a writer?” some asked voicing a tone of humidity for the writer, but the “young rascals” dismissed the idea.
“Scrawler in the snow scribbling away there, you call that a writer? Tolstoy?”
And with dignity, as befits a great person whom ordinary folk cannot abide, and of whom they are jealous, Tolstoy held himself at a distance. More and more he spent his free time writing in his bound, black notebook.
The only one he spent time with was Shakespeare. He still read him his wife’s letters, and his answers to her. Shakespeare learned Tolstoy’s wife was pregnant, and other such things, but even Shakespeare wasn’t deemed worthy of looking into the notebook.
Zibkov was careful, very careful with his black notebook. He knew that Peskin was eyeing it, so he was careful not to leave it about. If he was lying in bed but not writing, he hid it under his pillow afraid that if he dozed off it might be grabbed or peeked into. If he went anywhere he took the notebook with him.
Peskin couldn’t let the black notebook rest. He had to get hold of it and see what Tolstoy was writing. He even spoke to the nurse, with whom he was friendly and liked to exchange jokes, explained the situation, and asked for her help. But she refused.
“Why do you care?” she said “Let him at least have some pleasure from writing a book.”
Peskin didn’t give up hope of snatching the book and who knows if he might not have succeeded had Zibkov not fallen ill.
It was the final illness. His temperature spiked higher and higher. The doctor saw that he was burning up, tried in vain to quench, or lower the heat.
Zibkov lay burning with fever, his eyes mostly closed, and if he opened them, they gazed nonchalantly, not focusing on anything, perhaps they were already looking at another world. He understood everything but was strangely indifferent even to the news the nurse carefully conveyed that his wife had given birth to their child.
He had praised his wife to the nurse many times, had listed her fine qualities, had said how deeply he loved her. Now the nurse stood perplexed by his indifference, and exchanged whispers with the doctor.
Yet Zibkov understood everything. When, the nurse touched the thick, black notebook under his pillow while straightening his bed, and asked if she should take it out, he said it should stay. And there it remained until Zibkov raised his last breath.
In the last few days of Zibkov’s illness, Peskin and the other patients forgot about his Russian, his journal, even the name Tolstoy went unmentioned. Quietly they asked one another how he was, how was he holding up, and even Peskin refrained from telling jokes. With Zibkov’s death a tacit silence prevailed.
No one mentioned his name. The notebook was forgotten. As soon as she awoke after spending the night by his bedside guarding the departure of his soul, the nurse was entrusted with returning his belongings to his wife. Quietly she opened the black notebook and began reading. First she read letters to no one in particular, from a handbook of sample letters, then words written in an ornate handwriting ten and twenty times covering tens of pages.
She was curious about these single words, wanting to see if perhaps she would derive the thought process of the deceased from them. She turned page after page and saw such words as: letter, ladder, later, she also found such words as temperature, doctor, nurse. But it was clear that on his death bed “Tolstoy” was teaching himself to spell English words.
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