Saturday, January 8, 2011
There is a panhandler who comes to my morning minyan who looks to be well past the age of retirement. He speaks a beautiful Yiddish with a slight slavic accent, the kind of Yiddish that was not learned in America. Rather than work the crowd, he lingers in shul. He's polite in response to small donations and gives a warm expression of blessing to someone who gives him paper money.
Friday morning, my curiosity got the better of me, and I asked him where he was from, that he spoke such a beautiful Yiddish. He said that he was from a small town in Ukraine. His parents spoke to him in Yiddish, but he winced in embarrassment when his mother called out to him at dinnertime.
"Chaimke kum a kaim."
In his small village, he dis not want to advertise his Jewishness on the street.He went to communist schools, but his grandmother told him as much as she could about Judaism. He and his family were relocated to the Urals far to the east before the Germans reached his shtetl. It was one of the few kindnesses of Stalin's regime to the Jews, and it saved his life.
After the war, the climate changed. Contacts with relatives abroad became dangerous. His mother had two brothers in the US. They wanted to send money to their sister and her family. She wrote back and told them not to write anymore. She was afraid that a contact with Americans could mean trouble for her and her family.
Chaim tells me that the things he learns in shul and the atmosphere he absorbs means more to him than the few dollars he collects. Speaking with him is a vivid reminder to me that history and local politics touch real human beings.
I always check what I read in the papers and the books against the recollections of flesh and blood human beings. Each human being is a library, and there is much knowledge to be gained from passers by. I look forward to speaking to Chaim again, to learning some new Yiddish words and to read some new pages of history not found in books. Sphere: Related Content