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Sound Effects: Jewish Stories in Hawaii
By Neal Milner
In a surprisingly cheery Honolulu public library I am about to do story hour for about fifty children and their parents. Some kids quietly take seats next to their mothers or fathers while a few sit on the floor at my feet. Others scramble around, restless even before story hour begins. The area is a large open space surrounded by children's books, so there are plenty of chances to escape from listening to a much older and, for most, much whiter person, the children thinking, "That haole [Caucasian] guy, he's real old like Grandpa."
I am not a hugger. My eyes don't twinkle. Children react to me the way they react to a large, unleashed dog shambling in their direction. The ones at my feet seem to be sitting farther away than they do when the children's librarian does story hour. And I am new to this, so I have none of the usual storyteller props: no chant, fish hook necklace, guitar or native flute, no wide, red farmer suspenders. It's just me clean-shaven in my Gap Levi 501s and fitted black Banana Republic tee.
I'm at this library today only to tell Jewish stories. "The Jews are here!" the librarian says to me, excitingly pointing to twin boys and their naval officer father who is stationed at Pearl Harbor. They are the only Jewish people in the audience.
My mother used to sing American nursery rhymes to me in Yiddish, translating them on the spot. "Three Blind Mice" became "Drei bleender mizelech, drei bleender mizelech/ dee moiz is gelofen un der zayger/ dee moiz is gelofen un der zayger." Peter, Peter was a keerbus esser who hawt a vibe une err ken neet farzorguen." Although I did not understand Yiddish, that version was much funnier. To a five-year-old, Yiddish sounded like spitting, tongue-twisting, high-decibel hysteria.
I heard these sounds all the time because Yiddish was the mother tongue of my immigrant grandparents as well as their brothers and sisters. All of them got by in English, but Yiddish was their everyday language.
It was the language of melodrama. In Tante Lena and Uncle Sam's kosher butcher shop Lena and her sister Ida, my grandmother, loudly argued over the cleanliness of the store's only meat grinder ("You're crazy." " I can see chunks of meat hard and dark like Coal!") in front of a live audience of customers in a room barely big enough to hold a butcher block table and a small counter. Adversaries over meat, the sisters were allies over tragedy. They wept loudly whenever Sam read out loud the sad stories in the Yiddish language newspaper The Daily Forward. I was surrounded by live Yiddish nursery rhyme characters.
For these Jewish immigrants, Yiddish was, as it always has been, a marker language. The nursery rhymes were my early reminder of who we were and how we were different. My mother was an accidental Yiddish folklorist. By translating the nursery rhymes, she did something that Jewish storytellers have done for centuries. She borrowed material from the dominant culture--The Historical Goyim--made fun of them, and made the blind rodents and pumpkin fressers our own. My mother thought she was simply keeping me entertained. In fact she was initiating me by letting me in on an historical inside joke.
That joke works for a Jewish audience. Historically that is why it existed, Jews talking to Jews about outsiders. But telling that joke to the uninitiated is a different story entirely, and Honolulu is about as uninitiated about Jewish life as an American city gets. It's a comfortable place for Jews, but people here have no experience with everyday Jewish life. Every Passover and Chanukah, the local newspapers run photos of some Jewish family happily eating something or lighting something. In a sidebar next to these photos there is Jewish festival news you can use, like recipes for making low fat latkes or heart-healthy beef brisket with a zest. Who the hell uses these recipes? No one I know. And that's it.
"Do you practice?" people here sometime ask me when they find out I'm Jewish. That question is reserved for religions on the fringe. No one ever asks a Presbyterian, "Are you a practicing Presbyterian?" The question is really a test, part curiosity, part disbelief, like when a Mormon gets asked, ""Tablets from God in Buffalo, New York?" or, in my case, "You don't celebrate Christmas? Why not?"
I got into Jewish story telling in Honolulu because I was a white person who knew my place. When my friend the librarian invited me, she said by way of encouragement, "No one in Honolulu tells Jewish stories. The haoles always want to tell Asian and Pacific stories. I got plenty of those already." In other cities just a whisper of an invitation for Jewish storytellers would bring out long lines of eager volunteers, including, may they rest in peace, many of my relatives, particularly my pimp and slum lord uncle who, considering his juice with the Milwaukee Police Vice Squad, would have felt more than comfortable sharing his experiences and maybe even an address or two. But in Honolulu I became the go-to Jew.
When I was ready to try my skills on adults, I wrote a story about name changes in my family, like Hymie Bornstein (Lena and Sam's son) becoming Hyland J Barnes. I worried that the audience would not understand the significance of the changes in the sounds of the names. My librarian friend, a gifted local storyteller with a national reputation, told me not to worry about getting deep. "Just concentrate on the sounds," she said reassuringly. "The Jewish names sound so musical, like Hawaiian." The name Alani Keliiho'omalu Kamakawiwo'ole comes out a little different than Yankl Teitelbaum, but I knew what she was going for, and who was I to doubt the power of Jewish sounds?
Still, I knew that the sounds alone tapped into only a small part of the real story about Jewish names. To the uninitiated, Himmelreich to Hillrich to Himes sounds like a double play combination with a Prussian shortstop. To people whose families had lived these experiencesthose three names were my mother's uncle and two of her cousinsthese changes were the opening page of a rich archive of lived or remembered experiences and symbols of immigrant 20th Century Jewish life: going from a small Milwaukee shopkeeper from Latvia who kept his store open on the Sabbath to support his family; to a third-tier med school that did not have a Jewish quota, especially if you Anglicized your name; to a successful physician whose own children could do what they wanted without worrying about Anti-Semitism or money, or, for that matter and for better or worse, not think about being Jewish at all. After I told this naming story at a Lion's Club lunch meeting in downtown Honolulu, the mayor's wife came up to me and said, "I didn't know that Cohen is a Jewish name."
Word about me got around. Actors who were rehearsing for a staged reading of "Angels in America" asked me to teach them how to pronounce the script's Hebrew, the Mourners Kaddish. The Kaddish is full of pesky, unfamiliar kh sounds: "V'yamlikh malkhutei b'chayeikhon uv'yomeikhon
" English has no kh sound. What's more, Hawaii has an unusual number of k soundssurnames, place names, close to 1500 street names that begin with k, Japanese and Hawai'ian words-- but no kh sounds. Mrs. Khim's Kim Khee?
Some teacher. Like most of my friends, I hated Hebrew School and skated by. Fifteen days, seven hours, and thirty-eight minutes after my bar mitzvah, when Hebrew School ended for the year, I was gone for good. I can pronounce Hebrew well enough to pray in the language, but I never picked up the minor frills like speaking it, unless there is some reason for me to say, "Yes, mother is the tent." That was a high enough bar for the actors. We co-existed. For them, the Mourners Kaddish was about a script. For me, it was also about my father.
At a library story hour I told the children a Hasidic Jewish folktale called "The Nigun."* In Hebrew, nigun means melody, particularly a wordless melody. Hasidic Jews believe that the human singing voice is the purest, most direct way of communicating with God and that melodies with wordless, spontaneous sounds are the purest of the pure. The singer uses any sounds that happen to move him, and often the sounds resemble Yiddish.
The story is about a poor but scholarly young man, Hayim. His rich future father in law, Yankev Ben Moishe, sends Hayim to the city with a hundred rubles to buy satin for the wedding coats. Instead of spending the money for the satin, the young man becomes so enraptured by two shepherds' flute melodies he hears along the way, that he gives the herders each fifty rubles to teach the melodies to him so that in his voice each will become a nigun. Hayim comes back to his village ecstatic but satin-less. His future father in law thinks the boy is an irresponsible nutcase, and the match between Hayim and the daughter goes kaput. Feeling not at all jilted, Hayim says to himself, If Mister Big Shot Yankev Ben Moishe wants to dump me, fine. I got me two new nigunim for the Sabbath, and now I can find a truly pious wife and father in law who understand that two ecstatic new paths to God are worth infinitely more than some shiny, high-class fabric.
The sounds of the nigunim are the heart of the story. The melodies appear again and again. First one melody, then the other, then the two nigunim one after the other, then more. Though the melodies are written in the text; the teller makes up the wordless sounds. As I prepared this story, the songs captivated me. I did not think about the sounds. They just emerged. The more I rehearsed, the more they pulled me in. I sang them over and over, much more than I needed to in order to get them right. They stayed in my head. I found myself humming them at odd times and places. When I rehearsed in my tiny study, my body moved like ecstatic Jews in prayer have moved for centuries:
La di da da di da da
Voy voy voy la di da di da da.
Di da da di da da
Voy ai ai da di di da.
And I am not a swayer.
That's what it sounded and looked like when I told the story at the library. The children responded to it just as I did. They sang along loudly along with each nigun, their bodies swaying each time more enthusiastically, as if they did not want the story to end. All of us in the large, airy room were united by the sounds.
But just by the sounds. Their swaying and singing came from watching me. My swaying and singing came from memories and layers of my own personal experiences: living nursery rhyme characters; my mother's voice; old women wailing "ai, ai, ai" at Yom Kippur memorial services; schnapps-filled chair dances at weddings; my family's dislike of the Hasidic Jews in our neighborhood; Hasidic folk tales; Woody Allen's parody of Hasidic folktales; growing up in a neighborhood where many of my friends went to Catholic schools; and the complicated mix of attachment and detachment that that I feel living in Hawaii.
Perry Como taught my family how to mingle Jewish traditions with the outside world. In the 1950s Como, a gentile, was huge, huge, big as Berle. Perry recorded a version of Kol Nidre. His version has a gauzy, vapid, laidback sound, which works for "Papa Loves Mambo", but Kol Nidre begins, "From this Day of Atonement I shall repent", and then gets even deeper. Any decent cantor's Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur blows Perry's version out of the water. No matter. Como's Kol Nidre was a smash. My mother and all my relatives loved it. I'm sure it made Tante Lena cry.
They loved it precisely because it was so Comoish, which to them was an honor. Tante Lena, my grandmother, and all the rest of these immigrants and their children knew that Kol Nidre or Yom Kippur did not touch Como personally the way it touched them with deep feelings of repentance, loss, and memories of the Holocaust. To them, there was Kol Nidre the prayer, and Kol Nidre the song. Perry's was the song, and that was fine. They saw the recording as a sign of recognition and respect. Kol Nidre is said in the synagogue only once a year, but they could hear Como's version on their Victrolas any time they wanted. Playing the record was a constant reminder that this famous crooner took an interest in their lives.
In Hawai'i, people take an interest in my life. Being Jewish adds zest, recognition, and mystery to my haole status. I may be a haole, but I am not just a haole. Being someone with only partially understood stories is better than being someone with no stories at all. No librarian in Hawai'i ever says to a haole, "I need someone to do Caucasian stories. Tell them what it was like growing up rich and Episcopalian in Kenilworth, Illinois."
After one of my performances, a local guy, an Asian American who had lived in Hawaii all his life, came up to me and said, "I had a Tante Lena too." We both laughed. He did not have to say anything more. I knew what he meant. The story linked us. It did what tellers try to do, create a community with the audience. I appreciate the importance of this Universal Lena, just as Tante Lena had appreciated the value of The Universal Como.
But that universally shared Lena is only a fragment. I still hold onto my personal Tante Lena. In that Hasidic folk tale, Yankev Ben Moishe could not fathom the emotional core of Hayim's experiences no matter how loudly or passionately Hayim sang. Hayim did not see this as a failure. Instead, Hayim saw his differences as a gift because they helped the young man reaffirm who he really was. And after all, Hayim also had other places to take his songs.
Neal Milner lives in Honolulu. He can be reached at email@example.com
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from the July 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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