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  • Writer's pictureLeah Jones

Foiglman by Aharon Megged

Like I said, I lucked into a dozen or so new books. Many of them with jewish themes or jewish authors. I just finished reading Foiglman by Aharon Megged. Megged is an Israeli writer and this books details the interactions between an Isreali Historian, a Yiddish Poet, their families and their works. While the central story is a tragedy, the conversations about hebrew and yiddish made this an uplifting read for me.

I’ve mentioned that I need to learn more than just the book stuff about judaism and being a jew. I worry about not feeling jewish. This is the first novel in ages (outside of the classroom) that I have taken a pen to, marked passages. Here are some that affected me, no judgement or many comments.

He said there were a few Israeli students at Ocford–he saw them at the library, pubs, the bookstores–and could always tell they were Israelis by their behavior. They had one characteristic no other foreign student had, neither Indians or Pakistani nor German or Norweigan: absolutely no inhibitions. That always amazed him; they would address a salesman, a librarian, a clerk at the bank or at the travel agent’s without manners or courtesy, without hesitation, directly, freely, as if they were playmates. The Englishman behind the counter would be taken aback, embarassed, often revolted by such an attitude; he would never comment on it, of course, but would resent such disrespectful and socially unacceptable conduct. How did the Israelis come to possess such a trait–Irving wanted to know–was it Jewish atavism? But no; true, Jews are noisy, boisterous, but they approach strangers warily, perhaps even fearfully… Is this, then, an idiosyncrasy of the new race being brought up here in this land?

page 97

 

Yossele Haft proposed a toast in my honor, took a sip, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and said, “I have never been to Israel: I’m simply afraid. I say to myself: I’m going to go to Tel Aviv, walk in the streets, and feel a total stranger! To feel oneself a stranger in London or Stockholm–that’s fine, it’s even an advantage. You say to yourself: All these people around you take everything here for granted, while you, Yossele, are able to see what they don’t! I walk around like a swan around ducks. But in Israel? To be a stranger in Israel?!?”

“You won’t feel a stranger in Isreal,” Foiglman assured him, “Believe me, they’re all circumcised there!”

“You think so, too? I won’t feel a stranger?” he smiled at me.

I said that Israel was the only country in the world where if a Jew walks in the street and feels like a stranger, he knows it is not because of how others see him, but because of how he sees himself.

page 124

 

The he said, “What can one do with this Hebrew of yours? Such a conceited, stuck-up language… Each word attired in a purple gown with a crown on its head… You can take a reverential bow before her, but not throw yourself on her neck… Sometimes I feel like grabbing a Hebrew word by its forlock, bending it a little and saying, ‘A little humility, young lady, lower yourself to our height, to the size of simple folk… Don’t walk about so haughtily, like a rich man’s daughter parading in her Sabbath finery on Main Street… You know what we say in Yiddish: “may God spare me gentile greed and Jewish arrogance.”

page 172-3

 

Sometimes I reflect on how Hebrew has supplanted Yiddish among those who left Europe, it seems to me that not only their speech was changed but their nature, too! Hebrew has deprived them of the warmth, the heartiness, the folksy simplicity! The transition from language to language is like those sex-change operations they perform these days…”

page 175

 

If a nation’s culture is compared to a family, with father, mother, sons and daughters–what, then, happens when you drive the mother out of the house? If Hebrew is the ‘father’ of Jewish culture, then surely Yiddish is its ‘mother’! It is Yiddish that inherited and fostered, treasured and safegaurded the wealth of folk wisdom, proverbs, legends, jokes, lullabies: it was she who infused the house with warmth! Why, for that very reason Yiddish is dubbed mame loshen and not tate loshen! And now, present day Isreal is a soveriegn state with glorious deeds to its credit and popm and circumstance too–but mother is not there!

page 33

 

There is one other passage about the impermeable emotional skin of Isrealis and how it relates to speaking Hebrew, but I can’t find it for the life of me. This has hit me so strongly, as I’m in the process of teaching myself Hebrew. I have the alphabet and that gets me through Shabbat services, but I want to chat in Hebrew, to read in Hebrew, to do more than Pray. First things first, vocabulary, then mastering the language I only hear once a week.

What I can say, is that even before I started this jewish thing of mine, I liked Hebrew. It didn’t sound harsh, but wonderful. I loved when Udi or Assaf would say to me, “I tell him in Hebrew, is easier.” I love when they would forget I wasn’t Israeli and would tell me something in Hebrew. I love when Ronnie insists on teaching me a phrase to accompany something that has happened. A phrase that emotes more in Hebrew than in English. “Soft as bread” instead of “dumb as a box of rocks.” “Or, in the new language, teet-khad-SHEE (root word: chadash, meaning new; literally “be newed (f., sing.)”; meaning: “congratulations on the acquisition of your new item(s), I share in your good feelings”. Much cleaner in one word. Forms include: teet-chaDESH (m. sing.), teet-chadSHOO (pl) (all the “ch” and “kh” are from the letter “khet”, so you know what that sounds like).”

It is a language that feels good in my ears, like spanish did when I started learning it. I can’t imagine how I’ll ever get to fluent, but the goal is there. Perhaps after Hebrew, Yiddish? Maybe I’ll move to Isreal, like the Random Rabbi suggested on my flight to Pheonix.

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