In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

–67– The Book of Disaster -­ Yiddish is the light that twinkles in the window. —Moyshe Kulbak, “Vilne” Part 1 Everything began in Lithuania, of course. But where to begin in Lithuania? I could start with my grandfather, who was born there in 1888 and left for the West when he was about seventeen. His story colors everything I’ll ever say about the place, it’s true, but by leaving for America when he did, he wrote himself out of this chapter, and I thank him for it. I could begin with the Germans, whose Final Solution was very nearly realized in Lithuania, with 90 percent of the Jews there killed by war’s end. Warmer, a little warmer. I could begin with my own journey there, in 2007. It was then that I met Faina. ————— I arrived, and then I procrastinated. I was finding my way around, and the Yiddish classes at the university were just getting under way, and as the course brochure promised, they were intense. Hours of classes every morning; in the afternoons, lectures on history delivered by some of the lucky few who’d come through it –68– alive; hours of grammar every night and of reading: poems, stories , novel excerpts—the pearls of Yiddish belles lettres. I could no longer call myself a novice by any stretch; back in New York, I had taken classes upon classes, the equivalent of three years of college Yiddish. Yet with Yiddish written right to left using the alef beys, as the Hebrew letters are called, the alphabet fatigue was still severe. After every sentence, I stopped to rest. Cracking Cyrillic had never been like this. I did phone the Jewish Museum, finally. Somebody named Jessica had given me the number. She’d hung out with members of the museum staff in the late nineties during her stint in the Peace Corps. On weekends, she told me, she used to crisscross the country by bus, photographing the old synagogues. While the phone rang at the museum, I thought of her. When the Soviets annexed Lithuania in the 1940s, she’d told me, two synagogues were left operating in the whole country, while countless others (more than a hundred in the capital alone) were shuttered or converted into warehouses, sports clubs, or stables. But they were still recognizable: Hebrew letters carved in the stone, arched windows, often boarded up, and inside, if you lifted your gaze, you’d see the gallery upstairs where, in the old days, the women used to pray. After that, there were the secret synagogues. A high wall would go up around a house, providing cover for Shabbes, the wedding canopy, and all the rest. The sacred books in these places had their own false covers: The Talmud might be disguised as The Collected Works of Lenin. Someone picked up. “Good afternoon,” I said in Russian. Russian has become a minority language in post-­ Soviet Lithuania, one that many people will speak only under duress, but it was the best I could do. “May I please speak to Elvina?” “She’s in the hospital. She had an accident.” I glanced down at my slip of paper. –69– ————— “Is Sonya there?” “Sonya got married and moved to Spain,” she said, adding a grammatical fillip that made the phrase “got married” function like a Russian verb of motion (a category usually limited to forms of “walk,” “drive,” “ride,” and “fly”), transporting Sonya to the land of castles and castanets on a magic carpet woven out of language. ————— Those were all the names I had, so I ended up explaining that I was in Vilnius for a month (no need to say why; every Jew in town knew about the intensive Yiddish course that brought an influx of foreigners each summer), and that Jessica from DC had asked me to call, and it turned out that Faina had known Jessica too, and then we discovered that we were going to the same concert that evening, sponsored by the Yiddish Department. I’m in my seventies, said Faina. Nondescript and extremely thin. I’ll wear a silk scarf. Bright red. ————— We found each other right away. The concert? I don’t remember much. It was probably your typical twenty-­ first-­ century Yiddish fare: a skinny young blond, struggling to belt out the songs and inject some neshome (that’s Hebrew for “soul,” and it’s made its way into Yiddish too, which is how I know the word at...


Additional Information

Related ISBN
MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.