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Behind the Real Shtetl

May 22, 2008 By:
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In Kate Simon's classic work, Bronx Primitive, in which she sketches masterful "portraits" from her New York immigrant childhood, she explains in the chapter titled "Forebears" that her parents were skeptics, and as such met all the bubbe meises (grandmother's tales) about the beautiful life in the shtetl with a raised eyebrow, even two.

In typical fashion, Simon writes of the past: "My mother's father ... was a tinsmith, a quiet, passive man who died early, after falling off a roof on which he was working. He left 12 children -- a 13th had been smothered in infancy lying between its sleeping parents, a not uncommon incident. Most of the children, like my mother, had one year's schooling, from the age of 7 to 8, and then went out to work, running errands, moving barrels and sacks in markets, selling shoelaces and buttonhooks, sweeping up the floors of dressmaking establishments, each learning enough to progress into an apprenticeship and a better-paying job. The youngest girls stayed at home to help grandmother. About her I know singularly little except that she was religious, apparently colorless, and possibly not overly bright."

Simon's book, a great one that I repeatedly recommend, is unlike any other I know about the immigrant experience. It hasn't a soft or mawkish sentence anywhere in it's nearly 200 pages. She was, doubtless, her parents' daughter, a supreme realist who viewed the past without sentimentality.

I have always used Simon's parents' yardstick as my guide when approaching books about life in the Old Country. Proceeding with a dose of healthy skepticism is a must. For example, I gravitate toward books like The Shtetl: New Evaluations, a series of essays edited by Steven T. Katz, recently published by New York University Press, which applies the stringent demands of scholarship to a subject that's too often bathed in tender hues. As scholar Samuel Kassow writes in his introduction to these new essays, "Gross generalizations and romanticized nostalgia still affect discussions of the subject; indeed few terms conjure up as many stereotypes as 'the shtetl.' "

My doubt meter was on high when I first approached They Called Me Mayer July, which is subtitled Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust. It's the work of Mayer Kirshenblatt and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, and is co-published by the University of California Press and the Judah L. Magnes Museum.

The alarm bells went off the minute I saw the painting reproduced on the cover. Here was a depiction of a Purim celebration in a home somewhere in Poland and, though the faux naïf style is appealing (something like a Jewish Grandma Moses), there seemed something too idealized about the scene. There's no dirt or dissent anywhere in sight. There are klezmer players and food and smiles.

And so I moved on from there with distrust as my guide.

But, all in all, They Called Me Mayer July has a sweetness and beauty that eventually won me over. And Mayer Kirshenblatt's testimony about life in his hometown of Apt, or Optów, in Poland, does help broaden our knowledge of the subject.

Mayer K. was born in 1916 and emigrated to Canada in 1934. However, he only taught himself to paint when he was 73 years old. (His daughter is a well-known Jewish scholar at NYU, who helped draw him out on what life was like when he was a youngster.)

'Crazy Mayer'

As to why he was called Mayer July, the artist explains: "I was named after my great-grandfather Mayer Makhl Gutmacher. Everybody in town had a nickname. Mine was Mayer tamez, Mayer July, because July was the hottest month of the year. Mayer tamezmeans Crazy Mayer. People get excited when it is hot, and I was an excitable kid. I was always on the go. I was very smart and very hyperactive. Of course, they wouldn't call me Mayer tamez to my face. They were afraid to do that. There were a bunch of Mayers. So to tell them apart, each had a nickname. Which Mayer do you want? Mayer tamez? Mayertreyger, Mayer the Porter? Or Mayer droybe, Mayer the Goose Carcass?"

An Act of Retrieval

They Call Me Mayer July may suffer at times from the idealization I tend to spurn; there's unquestionably a schizoid quality between the paintings and the text, with the latter being more "honest" or "realistic" than the images that accompany it. But one does have to remember that this is an older man reclaiming his childhood, and he apparently applied more stringent guidelines when it came to his memories. Here he speaks of his early education:

"Basically, I was robbed of my youth. I started khayder, the traditional Jewish primary school, when I was 4 years old. The first khayder I attended was located off Broad Street. It was a one-room affair. The place was dark and dingy. There were two beds, one on each side of the room, and a stove in the corner. The recreation of the children during recess was to take out the kindling wood in the morning, stack it up in a square as high as a chimney, and bring the wood back inside in the evening."

Mayer also mentions a kantshik, a cat-o'-nine tails, that would hang on the wall; it was generally "a convincer" for those boys who didn't do their lessons. But it didn't just hang there. A few shots from that and a child knew what was expected of him.

So much for sentimentality.

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