BY EUGEN SCHOENFELD / AJT //
I must admit: I am a sucker for a sob story. Quite often while watching a drama film, I find myself surreptitiously reaching for my handkerchief to wipe my tears.
This propensity is something I must have inherited from my mother – a true Yiddishe mama, a caring and tender mother to her three children; and a good wife, fitting the description of the eshet chayil (“woman of valor”) depicted in the book of Proverbs.
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To give you an idea: Every Rosh Hashanah, when we read the haftarah about Rachel crying for her children, it is my mother’s image that appears before me. Indeed, one of the last memories I have of my mother is that of her sitting on the floor of the freight car on our way to Auschwitz and crying for us – her children – who, in her words, didn’t have “a chance to have a life.”
She was not a worldly or sophisticated woman. She was born and raised in a small village (a dorf in Yiddish) that included six other Jewish families in the midst of the Carpathian Mountains. The only nearby reminders that the world had entered the 20th century were train tracks upon which a locomotive passed at most once per day and a bus that might chug through every other week.
Even without electricity, running water or more than four rooms, the house that she grew up in was considered “nicer” than those of the neighbors. She was educated only to the limit of the local school system: reading and speaking Hungarian, speaking Russian and reading Hebrew.
And when she married my father – it was, of course, a shidduch (arranged marriage) – it was thought of as quite the “step up” to live with my father, the owner of a fairly successful and stationary bookstore in the 22,000-person city of Munkacs.
An Early Appreciation
But although she was reared in a tiny village without a library or cinema, she was still a woman with a very sensitive and romantic soul. She would not only tell me stories about Solomon and his loves or other biblical ma’aseh (“stories”) but also romantic tragedies like the tale of the sinking of the Titanic.
With these stories, she made such a tremendous impact upon me. If you can believe it, I’ve still not seen any of the Titanic movies – I feel I have already suffered, as my mother did, when she painted with words the scene of men saying their goodbyes to wives and children as they entered the life boats and the great ship slipped into the cold, deep waters of the Atlantic.
Of course, for all this sadness, she was always equally joyful when she told me about life after the coming of the Messiah. In her view, life in the post-messianic world will be an existence of leisure without hard work or hunger, where anyone could pluck the free-growing fruits like the ancient manna in the desert.
Meanwhile, the books of my father’s establishment only encouraged her imagination, as she became a voracious reader. In my teens, she would recommend to me novels that she liked, such those written by Cronin, Bromfield and Pearl S. Buck – and, last but not least, “Gone with the Wind.”
And finally, as you might expect, she later also fell in love with American romantic movies. Her favorite film was the “The Sheik,” and her favorite star was Rudolph Valentino.
I can remember with a smile, when she and father returned from an early movie and I would ask her “Mama, how was the movie?”
She often responded:
“It was wonderful. I cried all through it.”
From Unlikely Origins
Of course, my mother’s love of the romantic begs the question: How did a woman from a Chasidic background, living in this tiny village, develop such a soul?
It was most likely because a love of tales and romance has its roots in Chasidic life itself.
See, unlike the non-Chasidic Jews at the time – who might best be characterized by a love of learning and knowledge from Talmud and Torah above all other religious requirements – the average Chasid loved the aggadot and midrashim – that is, the legends and the interpretative tales of the Torah above dry textual learning.
In sociological terms, the “opponents” of Chasidism stressed the learning dimension, while the Chasidim placed great emphasis on the experiential religious dimension.
Whatever the Baal Shem Tov (a.k.a. Besht) sought to accomplish with the founding of Chasidism is a matter of dispute, but it is indisputable that the movement took root among the common unlearned Jews of humble origins in Eastern Europe in the Russian. These were Jews who hardly had enough time for prayers, let alone for learning, but their hearts certainly yearned to feel the love of G-d, and they believed in miracles and various forms of magic.
For instance, at Shalosh Seudos on Shabbat afternoons, instead of learning the Chasidim loved to listen to magidim, the storytellers who amazed them with tales of the righteous miracle worker Rabbi Meir baal Haness or the coming of the Messiah and what life is in heaven (olam ha-ba).
And the women in most Chasidic homes read the Tzena Urena and other such tomes of ma’aseh that reinforced moral values. Their favorites were stories of marriages between bashert (which, interestingly, on at least some level eschew the traditional convention of shidduchim).
Legacy Worth Living
It was such stories of love and miracles, coupled with humor, that became the well from which the Yiddish writers drew their imaginative tales. Consider their value: How many of us would be acquainted with the shtetl world if it were not for the stories of Shalom Aleichem, whose stories gave life to magnificent “Fiddler on the Roof”?
There were others like him, like Mendeleh Mocheir Sfarim, Yaakov Fichman and Yehudah Leib Peretz to name a few. And there was one who is attributed with having brought this literary genre to the United States –the Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer – whom I had the privilege to know.
All their works reflect the spirit of the Chasidic tales. Yes, this culture is beginning to die out as Yiddish romance novels, the Yiddish Daily Forward and Yiddish theater die out – but it does still stick with some.
That is something to celebrate, as the common theme of Yiddish literature is the same romance that my mother so loved. I know at the very least that my life was enriched by the Jewish sentimentality and spirituality that were transmitted to me through my mother’s tales: Indeed, I was introduced to a world of magic in which Judaism was more than ritual laws, prayers and study.
I was told of a magical world that will exist when the Messiah comes; a world where everyone will have a parnossah (“sufficiency” or “well-being”); a world without anti-Semitism. These stories were the lifeblood of hope and spirituality in a difficult world that otherwise perhaps would be too difficult to bear.
All of her stories instilled in me a sense of hope – a hope that G-d will help you – and that was my mother’s main motto.
Eugen Schoenfeld is a professor and chair emeritus at Georgia State University and a Holocaust survivor.