Roskies’ Yiddishlands is evocative memoir

Soon after her arrival in Canada in 1940, Masha Roskies sat down to a meal at her sister-in-law’s house in Montreal and, seeing that only “Canadian bread” (the white, fluffy stuff called Wonder Bread) was on the table, asked for a piece of real bread instead.

When her aunt curtly replied that “this was what one ate in Canada, and she might as well get used to it,” Masha — according to one version of the story — burst out crying, already longing for the thick black breads of her Vilna youth.

David G. Roskies tells the story in Yiddishlands (Wayne State University Press), his recent prize-winning memoir that memorializes his late mother, Masha, and lovingly recalls her well-storied life and family’s past in a series of interwoven chapters that focus initially on her life and then shift into his own.

Born in Montreal in 1948, David Roskies seems to have inherited his mother’s reverence for Yiddish culture as well as her sense that all Canadian bread and experience pales in comparison to the vital and richly fulfilling Yiddish life once lived in Europe.

The story goes that the first thing he heard at birth was his mother singing The Rebbe Elimeylekh, one of hundreds of Yiddish folk songs that she carried in her head: a trove of musical culture that YIVO researchers would one day be thrilled to record. Thus was “Dovidl’s” introduction to the world of Lithuanian Jewish culture that surrounded him as a child, and about which he eventually became so knowledgeable and proficient that at 15 the great Yiddishist Max Weinreich would tell him: “Fraynd Roskes, di yidish-forshung darf aykh hobn, the field of Yiddish needs you.”

From an early age, David understood “that time was riven in two: Time Before/Time After. When Mother said, ‘dos iz geshen in fertsikstn yor, such-and-such took place in the fortieth year,’ I knew she was referring not just to 1940 but to an entire Red Sea of circumstances by which the Old World stood divided from the New. . . . Mother was the only link across the abyss of time. Like Moses on Mount Nebo.”

Masha’s mother, Fradl Matz, gave birth to some 10 children by her first husband before being widowed, then remarried and gave birth to Masha in 1906. Besides taking care of her large family, Fradl ran the Matz Press, the family publishing house that produced prayer-books, Bibles and popular Yiddish literature. In a chapter titled “Prayer for the Tsar,” David Roskies describes the great dilemma the Matz Press faced after the Germans occupied Vilna and demanded that the company remove the prayer for the tsar from its prayer-books.

Stealth was required, since complying with the order would have been considered an act of disloyalty to the previous Russian regime, therefore punishable should the Russians regain power. Entrusted to the secretive task, nine-year-old Masha excised the pages from each book cleanly and skilfully with a straight razor. As if on a quest for a holy grail, David as a grown man always sought out one of the Matz Press’ prayer-books with the pages missing whenever he visited a synagogue in Eastern Europe or Russia, hoping to bring it home as a prize to his mother. Eventually he found one.

Because Masha Roskies was “a patroness of the Yiddish arts such as Montreal had never seen,” David is able to tell numerous stories about such prominent Yiddish writers as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Melekh Ravitch, Itsik Manger, Avrom Sutzkever and Rachel Korn. In a chapter titled “The Soiree,” he recaptures the literary-salon atmosphere of his family’s living room on the occasions when it was filled with the likes of Ravitch, Chava Rosenfarb, I. J. Segal and other writers, poets and lovers of the Yiddish arts.

One of the visitors to their home was Yiddish novelist Chaim Grade, to whom Masha once recited this aphorism: “Before she died, Fradl, my saintly mother said, ‘Ale erevs zenen sheyn, all the eves in life are beautiful: the eves of the Sabbath, of the festivals, the eve of an engagement. Nor der erev toyt iz biter, the eve of one’s death — that alone is dreadful.”

Upon hearing this, Grade became excited, jumped up and proclaimed, “Masha, if you don’t commit this to writing, I will — in my very next novel.” But despite such encouragements, Masha never wrote anything. She always claimed she was too busy — promoting Yiddish theatre, helping to send Yiddish typewriters to Holocaust survivors overseas, arranging literary soirees, and immersing her four children in the culture that she loved so deeply.

Yiddishlands is a richly transcendant piece of writing that salvages many episodes of personal, family and social history, not only in old Europe but modern Montreal and numerous other places (hence the plural title). Sometimes reading these pages seems a bit like biting into a thickly buttered piece of black bread: there is so much nourishment here that it must be digested slowly. The somewhat Proustian writing style and layered personal associations may cause the reader to study and puzzle over some paragraphs long after first reading.

David’s sister, Ruthie, also figures occasionally in these pages; together, they have done their parents proud by helping to carry forward the Yiddish legacy to another generation. David is an esteemed professor of Yiddish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and Ruthie — Ruth Wisse — is an acclaimed writer and professor of Yiddish literature and comparative literature at Harvard University.

“I started writing this book the day I got up from shiva after my mother died,” David told the CJN after accepting the prize for Yiddish literature at the recent Canadian Jewish Book Awards in Toronto. “It was a way of keeping her alive. As long as I was writing the book, I was still in conversation with her. When that draft was over, I could finally let go.”

At the awards ceremony, Roskies concluded his acceptance speech by singing a Yiddish song from his mother’s repertoire that was first sung in Vilna in 1919. Similarly, his book also gives his mother the last word: attached to the inside back cover is a CD recording of ten Yiddish songs as sung “a capella” by Masha Roskies for the YIVO Institute. ♦

© 2009