Sitting Down For The Road

We don’t have many traditions in my family. We don’t sit around the Seder table asking questions; we don’t eat Chinese food on Christmas; we don’t have Taco Tuesdays or Gefilte Fish Fridays. We are pretty ordinary people in that sense. Or every sense.

There is one tradition that I’d like to keep and pass along to my kid – sitting down for the road.

Sitting Down For The Road

A view of Congressman George H. Tinkham’s suitcase after his trip. © Time Inc. David E. Scherman

Every time we were about to leave on a trip my Dad always said “Let’s sit down for the road” and we would set down our suitcases and sit quietly for a minute. It wasn’t my favorite thing to do – when you are a kid on the way to an exiting destination the last thing you want to do is to be stopped in your tracks and sit around even for a minute. But then again it’s a minute well-spent. You could realize you forgot something, or just look around one last time so a memory of your place will travel with you and eventually make you homesick. You could concentrate, finalize a plan, prepare for the departure, as a pilot might say revving up the engine. Many useful things you can do in a minute. Or you can just not do anything and wait for your Dad to signal that the sitting down for the road is over and open the door to something that awaits outside.

I’ve done this ever since I can remember. I sat down in places I’ve never returned to; I sat down with people who I never got to see again; I sat down before the trips I remember and many forgotten ones. Now I get to tell my kid to sit down and I like the continuity of it. It’s a real tradition, beautiful in its simplicity and as meaningful as one wants it to be.

For the road…

How I Was A Yiddish Singer

The mid-1970’s, when 7-year-old me was roaming the mean streets of Odessa, was a great time to live there. Odessa’s Jewish population somewhat recovered from the devastation of the World War II and the pogroms and devastations before that and, while the Soviet Government had a firm grip on the emigration spigot, prospered as much as was allowed. Jewish actors, teachers, musicians, artists, restaurant singers, underground business owners, doctors, tailors, professors – Odessa’s Jewish population was having another one of its golden ages. Maybe I should say “Odessa’s adult Jewish population” because many kids like me didn’t know we were Jewish.

Recently I ran across a website where Jews of my generation were describing how they discovered that they belonged to the Tribe. Not one of them found out from their parents. It was always a neighbor or neighbor’s kids, some lady at the store, an angry classmate, an opponent in a fistfight, someone throwing an insult or a backhanded compliment; Jewish kids were last to know about the most important thing in their lives. And then I understood why we don’t always see eye-to-eye with the American Jews, the ones carried to a Rabbi on the 7th day to have parts of them snipped, and taught how to participate in the great world Jewish conspiracy from their early days. Unlike them, we made it to adulthood intact, without ever seeing a Rabbi or even knowing the word Rabbi, or anything about being Jewish or the conspiracy we were born to participate in. While they were able to proudly announce their Jewishness in more languages than one, our nationality was conveyed in a series of winks and tongue-clicks with an understanding look and a sad face.

Around that time every resident of Odessa worth his eggplant caviar recipe had to have an underground recording of so-called Odessa songs. These were the songs usually performed in restaurants or weddings, sometimes funny, sometimes stupid, but always entertaining and good for dancing. Some of those included faux Yiddish lyrics and even when the original Yiddish had some meaning they were copied from musician to musician so many times that they lost all or most of it in the process. My household of course had a tape like this and I played it enough times to remember all the words in Russian and Yiddish. Except I didn’t know it was Yiddish, just like I had no idea I was a Jew and many other things a 7-year old not supposed to know. I also didn’t know I couldn’t sing.

How I Was A Yiddish Singer

I am at the center with my usual facial expression. Girl whose father was a part of the panel of celebrity judges is on the left wearing glasses. Odessa, 1976

That didn’t prevent me from volunteering to perform in a school concert. The casting committee consisted of my first grade teacher with the last name Rosenberg* and the father of my classmate with the last name Schneider*. I went on to perform a hit “Rahilya, May You Croak, I Like You”.

It went something like this:

Rahilya, may you croak, I like you.
I can’t live without you, Rahilya!
Rahilya, we’ll get married, you’ll plump up
And we will live on the beach together.

And then the Yiddish part started. I dutifully repeated every word with an exceptionally joyful intonation, perfect projection and a smile on my face. At that moment I was Pesachke Burtstein reincarnated if I only knew who he was.

Afn boydem bakt zikh knishes,
They are making knishes in the attic

Funem tukhes shit zikh mel.
And flour is pouring out of the ass

Az der tote trent di mome,
When Papa is banging Mama

Kinder makhn zikh aleyn.
Kids are playing alone.

Rahilya, you are beautiful like Venus,
But you will grow a large belly
And if not, let the cholera take me
But let it take you first!

Rahilya, we will go to Yessen-tukhes**,
Where sun comes up between the blue mountains,
And if not, kish mir in tukhes***
But my patience has run out.

Tears filled my teacher’s eyes and streamed down her face. My classmate’s father, a gentlemen in what then seemed like his 70’s but probably in his 40’s, was shaking and crying like a baby. We didn’t have Kleenex then so they wiped their faces with newspapers and rags. I finished with an especially well-done kinder makhn zikh aleyn and triumphantly looked over my teary-eyed audience of two.

This is the original song I was performing that day from the infamous tape.

My parents were friends with my teacher, so she just called them that night and asked them to try and contain my singing talents at home.

My Mom still reminds me about this every once in a while.

I never found out why I wasn’t featured in the school concert.

I still remember the words to this and other songs from that tape but nowadays my only audience is the shower curtain.

I don’t remember how I found out I was Jewish but I don’t think it was from my parents.

And that’s how I was a Yiddish singer.

*Unmistakably Jewish names
**Play on word combination Yessentuki, a famous Soviet resort, and a Yiddish word tukhes (ass).
***Kiss my ass (yeah, I know lots of ass-words in this song)

Big thanks to my friend Yelena S. for her Yiddish expertise in preparation of this post.

Graceland

One cannot visit Memphis without making a stop at Graceland. I’ve heard of people visiting Graceland more than once, but beyond checking the visit off your bucket list there isn’t much to do there that would warrant repeat visits. Elvis’s mansion might have looked impressive in the 1960’s but it’s pretty average today and it’s not even fully open “out of respect for Elvis”, so you won’t be able to see the infamous toilet where he met his demise. All the other exhibits across the street including Elvis’s personal planes and cars are of limited interest. And for a dead guy Elvis is charging way too much for the pleasure of strolling by all his jumpsuits and gold records and cassettes. That really doesn’t stop the crowds of people from filing in, and parking lot that would make an average Wal-Mart proud is never empty.

The first thing that struck me was that the mansion is fairly small by today’s standards. I always imagined it to be more grand and lavish. Not so much.

Graceland

…but wait,there is more… Graceland

Wars With Friends

Not a day passes when I am not asked about the situation in Ukraine. I have few friends in Ukraine and Russia and I keep a close eye on the developments. The events on the ground are played out thousand-fold in press and social media on a previously unprecedented scale. Newly-minted Russian and Ukrainian truthers on both sides sift through photos, text and videos, each coming away with the “iron-clad” proof of their version of every event. Facebook and Twitter wars reached a level warranting creation of a new term to describe it. Press resurrected the vocabulary and the level of vitriol not used since the 1970’s. For people of my and earlier generations the parallels with the past are obvious, what’s not obvious is how so many people can’t see them.

Luckily most of my friends remain sane and their integrity and sense of humor are intact. Others… As a woman I dated said to me once “I didn’t even know the real you”. It’s not that I don’t tolerate opposing views, it’s the hysterical tone of discussion that I find disagreeable. And just like that, explosions in the country I left so long ago are felt in such far away places as Kansas City.

This was a short introduction to an article by the Russian writer Alexander Prokhanov, an open anti-Semite and extremist. Or should I say former extremist since this article published yesterday no longer represents the extreme in what’s being put out on TV and Internet every day. More and more this is becoming mainstream and the voices of my friends are drowning in the ocean of screaming idiots.

My translation skills are not good enough to convey the dramatically-sermonizing tone of the piece, but until someone does a better job, this should cover it. Links and emphases mine.

 

The Victory – fiery, holy, divine.

For four years Soviet battalions and regiments, fearless divisions and enraged armies, mighty and unyielding fronts marched to it over blood, fires, and battlefields littered with bones. Tank crews, burning to death in the T-34’s, continued to shoot at the “Panthers” and “Tigers”. Pilots engulfed in flames rammed the German convoys and trains. Artillery tore at the Wehrmacht. Partisans, tortured to death, spit in the face of the executioners.

Ten Stalin’s strikes, ten red spikes were hammered by my Motherland into the hirsute torso of fascism. In the basement of the Imperial Chancellery the warriors found a black egg, smashed its shell, and broke the needle* containing Hitler’s death. Fascism croaked, as dies a twelve- headed dragon whose heads are chopped off by a red sword one-by-one. In the year nineteen forty five light won over darkness, love over hatred, heaven over hell.

Before the land had time to settle on the graves of the thirty million fallen heroes, when the embers of burned villages and towns still smoldered, Stalin gave the order to plant gardens. And these heavenly gardens bloomed from sea to sea. Among these blooming gardens we have rebuilt our ruined cities. We’ve built divine Minsk, amazing Kiev, and radiant Sevastopol. From these gardens we took off into space. And it seemed to us that their bloom will be endless.

But silent worms gnawed at our gardens. Insidious rodents destroyed our apples and pears. Our hateful enemies killed the Soviet country. Taken away its territory, its army. Destroyed the great factories. Broke the will of the victorious people. They encroached on the Victory, which was sacred for us.

But the worms could not gnaw at the sacred. Rodent teeth broke on the holy likeness. We carried the victory through nightmarish nineties. And on this icon again blossomed a scarlet bud and bloomed a wonderful red flower.

We inhaled its aroma, drank its magic juices. Rose again from sickness and sorrow. Built our state. Erected factories . Strengthened the army. Returned the will to live to downtrodden. Inspired the unbelievers with faith. The victory remained with us, and we never lowered its red flag.

And as a gift for our patience and stoicism, for our efforts and faith the Lord has sent us to the Crimea. Russian people once separated by the enemies merged again in the arms of victory.

But the black sperm of fascism spilled on Kiev – mother of all the Russian cities. In the golden apse of St. Sophia of Kiev, among the shrines and temples, an embryo started growing with an ugly, hairy face and black horns, just like the devil is depicted on a church mural. Fascism, like rotten poison dough filled Kiev and began to spread through the whole Ukraine. Its tanks are rolling over the streets of Kramatorsk.

Its armored personnel carriers spread fire over Slavyansk. Its helicopters swoop over the suburbs of Donetsk. Its priests staged the ritual death in Odessa: forty Russian martyrs were burned alive while the executioners hooted and laughed. It was a fascist prayer to Hell, commemoration of Himmler, praise to Adolf Hitler. After Odessa crematorium Obama and Merkel smell of fried human flesh. Timoshenko, this vicious cripple weaved her braid with hair of prisoners of Auschwitz.

We celebrate the sacred victory of nineteen forty five, hearing cannons of enemy tanks in southeastern Ukraine, where there are mutilated bodies of militia, where there are crushed Russian skulls. New fight against fascism is inevitable.

Stalin’s eleventh strike is inevitable.

Let President Putin review a military parade and give the order to marching regiments and combat vehicles directly from Red Square , St. Basil’s Cathedral to go to Donetsk, where a wounded militiaman with a weakening hand is throwing a Molotov cocktail into a fascist Bandera tank.

*reference to Koschei

And here we see those militiamen and their weakening hands.

Wars With Friends

Memphis

The shortest route from Kansas City to Memphis is via Springfield, MO and rural Arkansas where highway is controlled by the roaming gangs of deer who stand around the road contemplating if they will let you live. I wouldn’t recommend driving there in the dark.

I didn’t want to go to Memphis. Even though I learned English trying to sing along with Elvis (and that’s why people often ask me if I am from Tupelo),  I didn’t feel the need to visit his house and other Memphis attractions didn’t really seem worthy of a fairly boring 8-hour drive. Usually we try to see things along the way, but there wasn’t much to see and the only memorable item was a town called Cabool, mostly because of how out-of-place the name seemed somewhere in rural Missouri.

Memphis

Memphis turned out to be a fun place for a weekend trip, with enough things to keep you busy for a few days.

…but wait,there is more… Memphis