When I was little I fell in love with the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, rereading our copy of Zlateh the Goat dozens of times. Poor Zlateh was getting too old to give milk and the family that kept her was flailing financially. They needed to eat. A decision was made to sell Zlateh to the butcher so that the family could survive the winter. On the way to town a snowstorm trapped the goat and the young boy taking her to the butcher. Zlateh kept the boy warm through the storm and provides milk.
Spoiler alert: they survived the storm and turned back to the house where Zlateh lived out her life as a valued member of the family.
Don’t Let Me Read Miss Understood
When I needed more stories, I reached for the adult novels of Mark Twain, Sholem Aleichem, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. I under-understood them, like so many of the other books I read as a child. I wasn’t ready for the layers of plot and emotion and character. I wasn’t ready for the way that the comic became tragic. I wasn’t ready for demons that weren’t harmless. What I was ready for was the rhythm of the sentences and the shape of the words. And that’s what I read for.
There is a rhythm to tragedy—especially Jewish tragedy—that feels comic. It begins with a set-up and ends with a punchline. This is the way that we pass our lore through the generations and relate our horrors to children without traumatizing them. The stories are four-dimensional, beginning with humor. With time, the stories unfold, revealing a new dimension of pain and tragedy. The stories unfold again, warning of coming harm and providing hints for survival. They unfold again, and the humor feels fresh and sparkling.
The imp in the novel I am writing is desperate to warn of coming harm. But does anyone listen? Of course not. Who listens to warnings? Not even the characters in my stories listen. See:
“We’ve had it up to here with the warnings. Everything is a warning with you. And nothing can be changed. Fires come when they come. Hunger comes when it comes. Sickness comes to the hail. We run and run and run and still Death finds us all. Who knows what to do with warnings?”
If fictional characters won’t listen, who will?
Everything I come across during the research for the novel makes me wish to be a small part of a big community that can make the world laugh. On my worst days, I am afraid that humor numbs us and keeps us from acting or taking danger seriously. On those days I treat myself to a few episodes of Brooklyn 99, and then I go back to the work of trying to repair the tiniest cracks in the world. I remind myself that there are other ways to communicate and that humor renews us.
This brings me to Sholem Aleichem’s grave and the epitaph he composed for himself:
- Do ligt a Id a pashutier – Here lies a Jew a simple-one,
- Geschrieben Idish-Daitch fur weiber – Wrote Yiddish-German (translations) for women
- Un faren prosten falk hot er gewein a humorist a schreiber
- – and for the regular folk, was a writer of humor
- Die ganze lieben umgelozt geschlogen mit der welt kapures
- -His whole life he slaughtered ritual chickens together with the crowd,
- (He didn’t care too much for this world)
- Die ganze welt hot gutt gemacht – the whole world does good,
- Un ehr – ohoy vey – gewehn oif zuress – and he, oh my, is in trouble.
- Un davka de mohl gewehn der oilom hot gelacht
- – but exactly when the world is laughing
- gecklutched un flegg zich flehen – clapping and hitting their lap,
- Dought er gekrenkt dos weis nor gott – he cries – only God knows this
- Besod, az keyner zohl nit zeiyen – in secret, so no-one sees.
Oh how fortunate he was to have died before the world burnt.