The other day one of my good friends came over, and it just so happened that I was in the middle of doing laundry. I can’t afford a washer and dryer, plus it’s cheaper to just do the wash at home rather than going to the laundromat. So there I was, wearing my oversized rain boots (with knee pads to match) in the backyard, doing the wash – with a big bucket of soapy water. My friend started giggling, and blurted out “You’re such a Jew!” And I said – “Thank you!”
It’s true. All us Jews got a few things in common. We do what we gotta do to survive no matter how complicated. It’s a matter of making ends meet, and being a self-starter. We also love a good kvetch, can’t survive longer than a week without a bagel, and there’s of course that unforgettable history of our people. Aside from that, we’re just like everyone else. We just wanna survive life, while representing our heritage with pure unadulterated chutzpah.
Lemme shine a little Yahrtzeit light on that for ya.
Darkness Casts No Shadow -Arnost Lustig – My go-to of Lustig’s Children of the Holocaust series; the story which inspired Jan Nemecs “artificial documentary”; titled Diamonds in the Night -a film that hits me hard every time. Even though these were fictional reconstructions of the stories of children who survived the Holocaust (based upon Lustig’s personal traumas living in concentrations camps in the 1940’s), there is still no way to forget that these young adults experienced true horror in their childhood. The first chapter starts out in such a way that we as readers are hooked almost immediately: “Is everything lost in the darkness?…there had been no peace in the sky since the plane appeared. The flat car tossed from side to side and the wind lashed them, blowing soot into their eyes…his mouth dropped as he looked up at the plane then at his companion -Will you jump after me? Or do you want to go first?”
The Little Book of Jewish Celebrations – Yelena Bryksenkova & Ronald Tauber – The illustrations will make your heart skip a beat, and the text takes the reader through various scenarios that still ring true for some Jewish folks, such as circumcision, Simchat bat, and other ceremonies. Although I’m not much into the religious customs, I can relate to something profound here. I am so proud to come from those who survived the genocide. I absolutely love that family gatherings, in my heritage, focus on festive rituals centered around scrumptious, holy meals.
The Tale of Meshka the Kvetch – Carol Chapman, illustrations by Arnold Lobel – A charming Yiddish tale about a cute little plump woman named Meshka, who got herself into some big time trouble by contracting “the Kvetch’s Itch,” which entails everything she Kvetch’s (complains) about coming true before her very eyes. Sounds frightening doesn’t it?
Women in Polish Cinema – Ewa Mazierska & Elzbieta Ostrowska – Because paradigms of Polish cinema reflect situations of the archetypal figure of Jewish intersections, I thought this was a fine place to mention sociocultural portrayals of such. The myth of the Polish Mother is debunked, as ideological restraints & status shaped the future of Polish discourse. Women were expected to fulfill traditional roles, such as childbearing and housekeeping, but they were also already working in factories and on the land. No wonder we are tough as nails. And don’t forget, the collapse of communism was in 1989, and even since then the introduction of democracy has barely allowed for any positive changes for the Polish woman’s freedom.
Hungry Hearts – Anzia Yezierska – I especially have a fondness for “Wings”, which follows a young janitress living in poverty, named Shenah Peshah. She is eventually befriended by a male sociologist, around her age, who brings her in to live with him. Together they study closely his patients, and fall in love. My favorite line from “Wings” is as follows: “But from where can I get the money for new clothes? Oi vey! How bitter it is not to have the dollar! Woe is me! No mother, no friend, nobody to help me lift myself out of my greenhorn rags.”
Manja – Anna Gmeyner – 526 pages of the life of Manja, one out of five children, who take refuge in Germany, between the years 1920 and 1933. Manja is a Polish Jew, and her five friends are German boys; one who is partly Jewish yet fearful of this fact. The children meet two days a week, on Saturdays & Wednesdays. Their meeting spot, a dilapidated house above a river. The story is roughly about friendships being tested in a time when the after effects of the war were inescapable.
Jewish Eating and Identity Through the Ages – David C. Kraemer – Habitual eating, food politics on biblical laws that limited Israel’s diet choices, and how a Jew living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early 20th century chose to eat Italian food rather than black bread and borscht. I’ll admit, I’m not much of a cook, which often makes my babushka a little verklempt when I’m in the kitchen. I guess the apple falls really far from the tree. Still, I found Kraemer’s guide to be easy enough to follow, and packed full of facts. These were not only on the history of Jewish identity through psychogeography but also in-depth chapters on Torah eating laws from “The Rabbinic Period” such as “Thou shalt not eat a calf with a mother’s milk”. I especially found interest in chapter 8, “Separating the Dishes”. There’s even a quote by Claude Levi-Strauss in the introduction which reads “Cooking is a language through which that society unconsciously reveals its structure”.
Hana’s Suitcase – Karen Levine – You may have read it already, but if it’s new to you, then I suggest you grab a copy of this tragic yet enlightening true story of a woman working at a Japanese Holocaust center, who discovers the suitcase of a young orphaned Czech girl named Hana. Levine’s story starts in the year 2000, in Tokyo. Those who attended the museum could visit Hana’s suitcase, as it sat behind glass in a cabinet. I don’t want to give away too much here, because the book is full of revelations that keep you reading: front to back cover in one sitting. I will say though, Hana’s favorite song was “I Have Nine Canaries” (Ja Mam Devět Kanaru). Which I’ve tried desperately to find a copy of, but all I could dig up was a modern version of the song, on a compilation titled The Buffooneiest Czech Oldies II. Hey, I tried.
The Uncanonical Jewish Books: A Short Introduction to the Apocrypha and other Jewish Writings 200 B.C. – 100 A.D. – William John Ferrar – You can’t go wrong with getting some biblical texts under your belt. There’s a lot to take in here, so I would suggest asking yourself how much time you have on your hands before picking this one up. If you’re not familiar with the Letter of Aristeas or Hellenistic influences, it’s gonna be a difficult read. Get out your highlighter kids.
Just the other night, I asked my babushka if she could tell me some more stories about her life as a young Jew. And at first she seemed quite emotional.
“Will ya make me a little somethin’ to eat first?” She asked me. Of course, I couldn’t refuse. So I cooked up some sausages, poured her a glass of diet soda, got out my notebook, and sat there wide-eyed and all ears.
“Well, there were many hardships ya see. For those of us who moved to the states before the war, we still had little options available. We changed our last names, so we wouldn’t be recognized as Jews. Dinner was either soup made from chicken bones, or potatoes and meatloaf. The majority of us held down dangerous jobs, in slaughterhouses, on the streets as pimps, or dancers. Some even sold flowers to the Italian mob.” As she told me these things, I started getting a little choked up. Then, she took a bite of her sausage and leaned in closer to me.
“Although there were times of great struggle, we never gave up. And neither should you…A bi gezunt, bubbala! In other words, don’t worry my darling.”
Gina Jelinski is a San Fernando Valley native whose background is in visual anthropology. She has spent the last decade working odd jobs as a librarian, a janitor, and a botanical photographer. Simultaneously she works in the fields of archival and behavioral analysis, and prefers to spend her time with a warm sesame bagel and her pet rat, Charlie.