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A Memoir

David G. Roskies With a CD Featuring the Singing of Masha Roskies

Publication Year: 2008

A renowned scholar looks back on his life and the life of his mother, tracing the Yiddish experience through major historical events of the last century.

Published by: Wayne State University Press


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pp. ix-x

I: TABLE TALK [includes images]

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pp. xii-5

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1. The Rebbe Elimeylekh

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pp. 7-11

The first thing I heard when I entered this world was my mother singing. It must have been a command performance. Given her rich past, her gift for languages, and her tenacious memory, she might have sung to me in Russian, Polish, Hebrew, Yiddish, or Ukrainian; but given our recent and decisive move to the Yiddish-speaking part of Montreal, away from the assimi-...

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2. The Dybbuk

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pp. 12-15

Born between the fifth and sixth Hanukkah candles in 1906, Mother belonged to a new generation of Lithuanian Jews. The first of her many siblings to attend a kindergarten instead of the traditional heder, she was instructed in Russian instead of Yiddish and was the first to grow up with a grand piano in her own home, a Royale that her mother Fradl bought at...

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3. Caf

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pp. 16-20

So why didn’t she marry Boris Seidman, the great love of her life? He was tall, spoke fluent Russian, and owned one of the largest dry goods stores in Vilna. When it was just the two of us, Mother and I, at my lunch break from school, there was an even chance of finding out. The last time they met on European soil was at Café Rudnitsky, on the corner of Trocka and German Street. Every detail was carefully planned. Of...

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4. Bread

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pp. 21-25

“In wartime, even rabbis abandon their flock.” Across from her at the dining room table in our spacious Montreal home sat Mother’s confidant, Rabbi Baron. What startled him was not her sudden and seemingly random association of Montreal in peacetime with Vilna during the First World War or the fact that the illustrious Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzenski, the subject of Mother’s pronouncement, had lived just across...

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5. Prayer for the Tsar

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pp. 26-33

Speakers of Yiddish never confuse a seyfer with a bukh. A bukh they can read in the bathroom and a seyfer they can’t. That’s because a seyfer is written in the Sacred Tongue, about sacred matters, while a bukh is neither. As for Yiddish itself, Yiddish can be invested with sanctity so long as it fulfills its original promise, to bridge the cosmic and the mundane, God’s word and life as...

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6. Scribal Errors

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pp. 34-40

Aunt Ánnushka was a graduate of the Berlin Conservatory of Music. She settled in Kovno with her second husband, Lyova Warshawsky, ran a kindergarten there, and performed Yiddish songs both as a soloist and member of Engel’s Choir. Deported with her family from the Kovno ghetto on October 26, 1943, she perished in one of those Estonian labor camps re-...

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7. Malvina’s Roses

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pp. 41-46

The Eclaire on West 72nd Street was New York City’s equivalent of Café Rudnitsky, the kind of place you might go on a first date, where by day the dozen or so round marble and wrought-iron tables were occupied by retired ladies with heavy make-up, some with nose jobs, others—not. It was Malvina’s venue for showing me a good time, and with her bleached...

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8. The Watercarrier

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pp. 47-50

Uncle Grisha’s table, laden with fruit, jam, and tea—the late-night crowd didn’t drink, never used any external, artificial means of stimulation—was a place for songfest and protest. Vilna, after all, had been the birthplace (in 1897) of the Jewish Labor Bund of Russia and Poland, and some of its founding members, like Anna Rosental, still marched at the head of every...

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9. Yeast

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pp. 51-56

It takes twelve hours for yeast to complete its work. This I know not from taking science (my worst subject), but from my father, who wrote his master’s thesis for Stefan Batory University on the properties of yeast. The worst part, he told us, was not the long wait so much as the overpowering aroma, which became as sickening to him as the taste of turnips, his staple...

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10. Beloved Fatherland

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pp. 57-63

Getting my first summer job at the Montreal office of Huntingdon Woolen Mills seemed like a giant step. Mornings I spent indentured to Mr. Goldberg, the chief salesman, who drilled me on what to charge different customers for the same fabric, in between his tales of the Warsaw ghetto. On August 11, the twentieth anniversary of the Selektion at the Kurt R

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11. The Black Canopy

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pp. 64-69

Whenever we’d drive by the Catholic cemetery on Mount Royal, the one that faces Beaver Lake, Father would say, “A cemetery—what a fine place to make out with a girl.” That Eros and Thanatos made natural bedfellows was a startling observation coming from Father, because on no other occasion would he indulge in romantic reverie, and even more startling given...

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12. May Day

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pp. 70-74

Ruth may have been the family chronicler, but it was my brother, Ben, who first defied Mother’s embargo against going back. The war was over, he insisted, and the past was not an occupied country. His remarkable series of trips abroad, it later emerged, were acts of reconnaissance, which would culminate in the boldest maneuver of all—aliyah, immigration to Israel—...

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13. The Wooden Box

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pp. 75-80

The journey to Moscow and Baku whetted my brother’s appetite for more, and one day he returned from a solo trip to Paris with a whole set of photographs of Peppi. Who was Peppi? Peppi had been Ruth’s governess in Czernowitz, hired to protect Mother’s third child from the fate of the second, to free up evenings for Mother to perform her songs at the Masada Club, and...

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14. The Last Seder Night

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pp. 81-85

With so many stories, you’d think that the one that really mattered, the story of our exodus from Europe, would surely have been fished out of the sea of Mother’s memory, an episode here, an insult there, especially as it happened over Passover, and our own seders in Montreal were so fraught with anxiety. Not for the reasons you would expect—not because of the need to clean the...

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15. Lisbon

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pp. 86-89

Who can forget the opening sequence of Casablanca, the greatest movie of all time, when a sonorous voiceover leads the viewer, whose knowledge of geography cannot be trusted, through the preferred escape route from Europe? Remember the point of embarkation to freedom? It was Lisbon, the same port city where my parents and two siblings ended up in the fateful...

II: TALKING BACK [includes images]

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pp. 91-96

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16. Playing Solitaire

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pp. 97-101

Just because I hated Field Day, Color War, team sports, and anything overtly competitive unless the game was already rigged, like Making Mommy Happy, didn’t mean I couldn’t compete against myself. All the boys in my class, for example, collected cards, and I learned how to trade and flip with the best of them. But the trading cards that really mattered to me were never...

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17. The Soir

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pp. 102-108

Many were the professional writers who urged her to do it. “Masha, far vos shraybt ir nit,” they would ask, “Masha, why on earth don’t you record your memoirs?” Not just Melekh Ravitch (pen name of Zekharye Bergner), who showed the way by publishing On Long Winter Nights, the autobiography of his mother, Hinde Bergner, with generous financial support from my mother...

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18. Cape Cod

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pp. 109-114

Didn’t we see? Rushing her like that almost made her forget to hide the jewelry in the cedar closet! Sheyn voltn mir oysgezen, think if we hadn’t brought along the wet face cloth, it’s already so hot and we have such a long road ahead, a good thing we’re already past the Canadian-U.S. border, she worries that something might be wrong with our passports. When the border...

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19. Double Feature

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pp. 115-118

Montreal, like Vilna, was a Catholic city, full of churches, monasteries, nunneries, Jesuit schools built like Lukishki Prison, only on much greener grounds, with herds of black-robed nuns roaming the streets and a huge crucifix lighting up the sky atop Mount Royal. The most forbidden act was having an abortion. The second was going to the movies. Drive-ins were...

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20. Male Bonding

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pp. 119-124

The Talmud says: Abba bar Kahana began his sermon with the passage, You shall teach them to your children (Deut. 11:19). If the father is insufficiently learned, he must hire a tutor for his son, as Joshua ben Pera hyah said: Provide yourself with a teacher; get yourself a companion. How do we know this? Because it is written, velimaddetem, and you shall teach, which can also...

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pp. 125-130

Never again would I see Mother laugh so hard. The Montreal Yiddish Youth Theater under the direction of Dora Wasserman was putting on an evening of improvisations, billed as “Études,” and the first act was in pantomime. Each young actor had to invent a role and stick with it, playing alongside but separate from four other members of the troupe. I chose Trotsky, as I imagined...

III: JEWSPEAK [includes images]

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pp. 131-136

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22. Sutzkever’s Address

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pp. 137-146

In late May 1967, my mother picked up the phone in our home in Montreal to call the Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever in Tel Aviv. From the screaming headlines in the three Yiddish dailies to which we subscribed, she knew that UN Secretary General U Thant had capitulated to the demand of Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, to pull the UN Emergency Force...

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23. Leybl’s Ark

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pp. 147-153

Finding his street, Yordei Hasiráh, Those-Who-Landed-in-a-Lifeboat, was not easy—a narrow U-shaped street tucked away in the Katamon section of Jerusalem, where massive Arab villas stood out amidst overgrown gardens and gnarled trees. Jerusalem was no planned city, like Tel Aviv. Nor did I expect to be greeted at the gate by a barking dog, since most Yiddish writers I...

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24. Between Two Mountains

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pp. 154-160

We were harrowing the soil at Packard Manse, an ecumenical retreat in Stoughton, Massachusetts. Joel was sweating profusely and there were grey rings under his eyes. “Spiritual renewal,” he said, “has always come from this neck of the woods. Walden Pond is not too far from here. And Brook Farm was located in West Roxbury.” “What was Brook Farm?” I asked, grateful to take a breather. I knew that...

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25. Kotsk

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pp. 161-172

After they had learned how to pray, Mother’s generation learned to sing love songs, revolutionary hymns and satiric ditties. They were convinced that modernity was a one-way street. Then my generation came along. My generation decided to turn itself around. We apprenticed in the traditional arts. If only—if only I could handle the silence. To forswear the taste of meat was less of a problem at the Somerville...

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26. The Sale of Joseph

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pp. 173-176

When they once asked I. B. Singer why he didn’t write for the theater, he is reputed to have said: “Because every Yiddish play is essentially the same. It starts with a heartfelt Kaddish and ends with a raucous wedding.” Well, it’s almost time for the wedding. In the end, Abby would never do for the role of Havurah spouse. She drove a sports car and spent much too much time making up her eyes. Could you...

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27. The Two Bulvanes

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pp. 177-184

When Ida Erik was liberated from Soviet captivity, Mother refused to see her. This, despite my brother’s pioneering trip to Moscow in 1967 (and mine in 1971); despite the Great Exodus from the Soviet Union that we had marched for, picketed for, petitioned for but never dreamed would happen; despite Ida’s trip to New York upon the invitation of her brother-in-law, Dr....

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28. Yom Kippur

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pp. 185-188

For Lyutov, Isaac Babel’s alter ego, the prototype of manhood was the Cossack. In the final, politically correct version of Red Cavalry, Lyutov rides off into the sunset, Cossack-style. I too have a manly persona in my head named DAH-veed. Ever since meeting Tami, my measure of manhood is to walk along the shores of the Mediterranean holding hands with a beautiful...

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29. New York Jew

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pp. 189-195

All right. So you dropped out of Havurat Shalom. So you gave up on your dream—and your brother’s and your sister’s—of living in Israel. Isn’t teaching at a seminary the next best thing? Here it is 1985 and you’re already an Associate Professor. And what’s wrong, may I ask, with being a New York Jew? Ruth would give her right arm to live in Manhattan. Instead, your sister’s...

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30. Partisans’ Hymn

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pp. 196-200

Ask me the name of any town or townlet in Poland and I can tell you its Jewish equivalent. Góra Kalwaria? Ger. Opatów? Apt. Rzeszów? Reyshe. Tyszowce? Tishevits. Chełm? Khelm. These places are the capitals of my Yiddish heartland. They exist on a separate plane, in their own geography, which is why I had zealously avoided going there as long as possible. In the spring of my forty-fourth year, I accepted an invitation from the...

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31. The Menorah

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pp. 201-206

Lublin was an oasis of femininity after Krak

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32. Dream House

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pp. 207-212

It was Mother’s dream house, and mine too. A three-story house made of red brick with the front door painted a bright blue. Thirteen rooms, not counting the laundry room, pantry, wine cellar, and capacious closets. In some rooms, like the sun porch and basement, she never ventured, which made them the perfect refuge, for she was always “on,” from the moment the...


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pp. 213-222

Masha Roskies Sings: Liner Notes [includes Acknowledgements]

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pp. 223-225

E-ISBN-13: 9780814335444
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814333976

Page Count: 240
Illustrations: 13
Publication Year: 2008

Edition: 1
Volume Title: N/a

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Yiddishists -- United States -- Biography.
  • Jewish scholars -- United States -- Biography.
  • Mothers and sons.
  • Montréal (Québec) -- Ethnic relations.
  • Jews -- Québec (Province) -- Montréal -- Biography.
  • Roskies, David G., 1948-.
  • Roskies, Masha, 1906-.
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