Friday, May 4, 2007

Mazel Tov, Forverts, May you live to be at least 120!

Reading the 110th anniversary edition of the Forward, I was moved by its wonderful contents. The struggles of socialists, the horrors of the Shoah, the desperation of greenhorns, and the nachas for those who made it to West Palm Beach: these all find their place in the commemorative issue. The paper seems to have shrunken its margins lately about a half-inch; not much, sure, but a markedly more tabloid, old-fashioned feel that complements its center-spread of a rotagravure of the staff that in turn recalls the early Yiddish paper's layout. I wish the editors had reproduced some of the formerly well-known "educational pages" in this style, say, on Roman and Greek art. I'm a sucker for mass-produced erudition in friendly fashion-- thus the appeal of blogs, nu?

(And longtime appeal. Recalling my dear father-in-law's signed headshot of Jimmy Cagney in Yiddish, note Marlon Brando perusing the Forverts above. Which way do you read it, he seems to be wondering? Right to left? Top to bottom? Hedges bets, immerses himself in Stanislavksian technique, opts for diagonal diplomacy and a Method Actor's compromise while remaining totally in the Moment. I note duly that my dear father-in-law's dear daughter has written for the English-descendent, the weekly Forward. Even though they did not publish my letter on the Irish Jewish Museum. See earlier blog entry from March....)

There's printed a letter much earlier than my attempt, in the Bintel Brief section "a bundle of letters" that along with Abraham Cahan's fiery leftist politics and Isaac Bashevis Singer's serial stories that would become later bound fiction, made the Jewish Daily Forverts the NY Times-meets-Dear Abby (both Abigail Van Buren and Ann Landers were sisters and good MOTs from the midwest) of the Yiddish-speaking world for most of the last century. At least its first half, for obvious reasons that remain no less heartbreaking in these excerpts here, by their pithy outrage and terse lament as powerful as a stanza from a psalm or a rendition of the Kaddish.

The letter is from a woman who was rescued by her bridegroom from the Triangle factory fire. He then rushed back to save other girls and the next his bride saw him was four days later in the morgue. She writes to the agony columnist. Is she unfaithful to her promise then made never to marry again for the sake of his dying love and selfless courage? No, the columnist assures her, she has suffered enough and deserves to live. L'chaim.

Synecdoche: rhetorical phrase where the part stands for the whole. One letter from the Bintel Brief sums up 3000 years. Is this the telegraphic nature of Jewish stoicism and Yiddish endurance? These pages of the 110th celebration are filled with such determination. Combining a sensitivity to moral rectitude and a practical acceptance of our frail limitations. How different is this realistic balance, I often have reflected, from the often smug or craven postures of many Christians who assume that their deity and themselves stay umbilically tied by a red telephone, a direct hotline to the divine will? By contrast, the Jewish push here between the lines if not always as the main text in the Forverts is for success. But not only material gain. Both detractors and supporters of the tribe tend too facilely towards this equivalence.

I mean living with the honorable choice. Layne & I when we first met early, somehow, found that both of us had an indirect tie to none other than the old rabblerouser William Jennings Bryan. The 1896 election, the supplement tells me, had resulted a month before the Forverts inaugural issue in McKinley's installment. What I did not know is that the GOP outspent the prairie populist 20-to-1. My father's father as a boy fixed Bryan's shoe while he campaigned on a whistle stop in some Ohio burg on that campaign; Layne was friends in college with the great-great whatever daughter of the man himself.

So distant this time only eleven decades ago seems. They say that 150 years is the nebula that circles us in terms of living memory of the past behind our birth and the future of those who will recall us after we die. In both cases we depend on others we never met or will never know to perpetuate, if for a bit longer, what we have learned or heard or passed down about one's recent ancestors or family. I was thinking of this today when defying similar odds of chronology or calculus the second time in two weeks out of my 5000-plus songs stacked into iPod shuffle my morning commute started off with Shane MacGowan's heartrending rendition of Eric Bogle's WWI song "And the Band Played 'Waltzing Matilda." The Pogues provide spare and riveting instrumentation, and Shane delivers this on record no less masterfully than when I saw him singing it to stare down and hush by the sheer conviction of his presence a crowd full of punks and teens and drunks at the Palladium on the band's Los Angeles debut back in 1986.

As with my encounters at the recent films "Letters from Iwo Jima" or "Pan's Labyrinth" the song is an amazing work of art that protests inhumanity and war but it is not a work I want to particularly return to often. But, hearing it again this morning, I thought of the old man, Roy Henre, across the street, the kennel owner who raised Corgis and Schipperkes when I was a kid in non-beautiful downtown Burbank. He was an MP in WWI. I read recently one of the last soldiers died from that war who had been fifteen when he fought. My older son is nearly that old.

I thought of old Mr. Henre, and how five decades would have passed between him telling me as a boy across the street about his wartime adventures from when he experienced them. Suitably censored I am sure. He was in France clearing out the bars and keeping the booze and the mademoiselles for himself after booting out his rowdier comrades in arms. What a different veteran from Bogle's Gallipoli amputee. "What are they marching for" remains a refrain that in these times of newspapers full of new casualties of twenty and even forty-five all too sadly applicable to another war where Allies die and natives skirmish and both sides blow each other up in a Mesopotamia lacking the celebrity of a T.E. Lawrence or the thrill of a flight to Aqaba.

When I took that now nearly fifteen-year-old son with me to the 613 Mitzvah store years ago, an elderly woman, perhaps one who could have not only read the Forverts but from her accent had many "bundles of letters" that she could have composed from another world war past, stopped me to bless the tyke and wish him "may he live to be a 120." I think of her too now, and wonder where her eternal rest finds her on this night of Shabbat and memory, "zakhor." Or, will she make it to the Mosaically complete span of 120 yet? That'd make her longer lived than the Forverts, an adult when WWI broke out, and theoretically a reader of Bryan's "cross of gold speech" in a Yiddish tabloid in some shetl now as vanished as the survivors of the Triangle fire.

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