Exploring Jewish Roots in Yiddish in Vilna

    November 2011          
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My Parents shortly Before their Death


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"Bist A Yid from America"

By Harvey Gotliffe © 2011

In the summer of 1981, I took my daughter to Israel to celebrate her sixteenth birthday, and three days after we returned, my 73-year-old father suddenly died. Less than two months later, when my 69-year-old mother joined him, I began filling a journal with thoughts about their lives and mine.

Although I was 45 and hadn't attended shul services during the week since my bar mitzvah, I began going twice a day to a nearby synagogue in the Detroit suburb of Oak Park. I sat unobtrusively in the back of the small chapel, furtively observing the other mourners in the Minyan - joining them in reciting the Kaddish.

Two retired rabbis, Gorelick and Wein, led the daily services, and when I first arrived and they learned of my father's death, they offered me condolences in Yiddish and English. After my mother died, they were both at a loss for words until I assured them I was all right.

When I was growing up, whenever my mother Hilda, my mume Adele and their mother, my beloved bobe Bertha had an adults-only conversation, they spoke in either Yiddish or Hungarian. Despite my entreaties to have them teach me both languages, they would only placate me with a phrase now and then.

In my teens, I learned some Yiddish words and phrases from friends whose parents had emigrated from Eastern Europe. But it was difficult to go far in a conversation with a discombobulated vocabulary consisting of gey avek, narishkeit, zay gezunt, oy vey, fresn and sheyn meydl. My sentences seem to contain one or two Yiddish words surrounded by others in English, and I felt short-changed.

After my Bar Mitzvah, I stopped taking after-school Hebrew lessons and in my adult years I would follow along during High Holiday services, davening (praying) only in places where I had felt completely comfortable. In 1981, after I had gone through Shiva and Shloshim twice, I was able to lead the service in the small chapel.

By then, I had filled the pages of one journal with thoughts on life, and had transcribed neglected taped recorded conversations I had made five years earlier with my parents, aunts and my eighty-nine-year-old great uncle Sam. I wrote down the names of places they had spoken of where earlier generations of my family had lived, and then found addresses for Jewish centers for some of them listed in the Jewish Travel Guide.

In the spring of 1982, I decided to travel to where my grandparents were born and mailed out letters to centers in Budapest, Timosoara, Romania (once Temeshvar, Hungary), and Kaunas (Kovno) and Klaipeda, Lithuania, the latter had been Memel, Germany when my father's mother Annie was born there in 1876. For good measure, I also mailed a letter to the Jewish center in Vilnius (Vilna). as well as to social and governmental organizations, naively hoping to find even the remotest family lead.

The responses were far from encouraging, but I was determined to go. In a neighborhood Jewish bookstore I bought Say It In Yiddish, a phrase book with a New York Times review printed on the front cover, "One of the handiest.it gets to the heart of communications." I put the miniscule, 170-page book in my shoulder bag along Lithuanian Self-Taught, and a 630-page Hungarian-English dictionary.

I flew into Paris, traveled by train into Finland, and then on to Leningrad, which was still behind the Iron Curtain. Two days later I took the overnight train into Vilna, where I had hired an official Russian Intourist car and guide to take me to my grandfather Max Gotliffe's birthplace of Kovno and try to trace our family.

It was Erev Shabbos when I arrived in Vilna, and after I checked into my hotel. I strolled down the nearby streets and stopped at a newsstand less than 100 meters from my hotel. I became excited when I saw the Yiddish-language newspaper Der Veg, and felt that something special would happen during my stay there.

I already decided to go to shul on Pylimo Street, for that Shabbos was the first Yahrtzeit for my mother. I debated whether to take my Yiddish and Lithuanian phrase books along, but decided that the yarmulke that I had inherited from my father's was all that I needed.

I easily found the shul and entered the yard through an iron gate attached to the fence, which surrounded the old, sandy-colored building. When I saw that the door was slightly ajar with an opened padlock hanging on it, I took the yarmulke out of my jacket pocket, set it on my balding head, and entered.

Some of the congregants eyed me warily, for I was a stranger in their midst. The men who appeared to be the regulars were all in their 60s or beyond, and were wearing anything but yarmulkes - sailor hats, felt hats, straw hats, and an eclectic collection of caps on that cool, rainy September evening.

They spoke in Yiddish and I once more regretted that I had not been privy to our family conversations years ago, had not studied the phrase books before my trip, and had not brought them with me this night. A few of the more curious men cautiously approached, and to answer their quizzical looks I blurted out "Bist A Yid from America."

Suddenly I was inundated with a barrage of questions in Yiddish, and somehow they understood my part Yiddish, mostly English sentences as they nodded their heads when I told them where I came from, that my bobe came from Memel and that my zeyde was born in Kovno.

I looked closely at their deeply lined faces, and I was reminded of the men my mother used to point out to me in Detroit in the late 1940s - the DPs - the displaced persons, the refugees of World War II.

As the men put on their tallises and prepared for the service, l noticed that all of the rows were marked with a "31," and then I found a seat in the back row on a hand-painted wooden bench. There were just eighteen men and one woman there on that Friday night. Three younger men in their 30s wore yarmulkes and stood intently watching what was going on, but refused the prayer books when they were offered. I later found out that one of those men was from Odessa and he could not read Hebrew.

I accepted a Siddur, and when I turned to the inside cover, I sighed deeply as I read the inscription. It was a gift from the Jewish Community of Montreal to "their brethren in the USSR." At that time, Lithuania was a captive state of Russia. My father had his Bar Mitzvah in Montreal, and on that night in a synagogue in Vilna -an ocean and a lifetime away from Canada- I would be reciting a belated Kaddish for my father just a short distance away from Kovno, where his father had been born. The Kaddish would have double meaning far from home, for I would also be chanting it on my mother's Yahrtzeit.

I gazed at the bimah surrounded by a wrought iron railing, as a one-armed man in his early 70s donned his tallis, and under flickering neon lights began to daven in Hebrew. I opened the book to follow along, looking at the facing pages printed in Russian and Hebrew. My parents' deaths had been the impetus for me to regularly attend services, and in turn, I had become a maven in Hebrew and joined in.

As I breathed in the stale musty smell of the sparsely furnished shul, it seemed like a very special place to worship even with its plain, unpainted floorboards and a pale blue and white ceiling hovering above the vast, empty balcony.

When the service ended, a short man in a light brown raincoat, scurried to get wine from a half-filled bottle for the Kiddush. Afterwords, many of the men came over to wish me a "gut Shabbos," and one toothless, gray-faced, slightly bearded man grasped my hand with strength that belied his age as he echoed those words.

I stayed behind as they walked out, studying the shul and making notes in my journal. I looked back once more, trying to savor the moment. Then I left, and began walking back to my hotel, following the slowly walking congregants as they headed home.

I ran into the most conversant of them and when I asked about services the next day, he told me the time in Hebrew. I said "L'hitraoit," and he repeated the words. The man standing next to him smiled at me and said "Zay gezunt." As we parted and I headed back to my hotel, all seemed well in the world for this Yid from America.

Harvey Gotliffe is a freelance writer and publisher, who lives in Santa Cruz, California. His blog is http://theho-ho-kuscogitator.blogspot.com/


from the November 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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