Thursday, December 25, 2008

A View from School

Len Klein
Memory Sketch # 06,
January 26, 2001

My mother said I had to go to school. Although I argued with her, it did no good at all. She was firm about it, and off I went that morning to one-seventy-five, just as if it was an ordinary day. As I walked to school, I thought over and over again, I ought not to be going today. And as I write about this now, I think I was right. At lunch time I left the school building, going just across the street to a new, rather small, delicatessen store, recently opened. Mom had given me a quarter for lunch so I had two hot dogs, a knish, French fries, and a mission soda, all for 23 cents. The new mission sodas were only three cents each, so I had two pennies in my pocket afterward.

Back on the school side of the street, I waited for the bell that would summon us into the building. Then I saw them, driving slowly down Blake Avenue, right past me. It wasn’t a long procession because only a few people in my family had cars, so people were kind of squeezed together. After the hearse went by, I recognized some of the family in the cars that followed, but I don’t think they saw me. I felt very strange and scared looking at the hearse carrying death, driving in the street by my school. “That’s my Grandfather’s funeral,” I told my friend. “Nah, that’s not for your Grandfather,” was the response. “No! I mean it! It is for my Grandfather,” I insisted. “Then why are you here?” he asked incredulously. “I don’t know. My mother made me go to school.”

Zaide, my Grandfather, was actually my Great Grandfather: the father of my mother’s father, but that was unknown to me for a long time. He was tall, trim, and formal, in the European style that I knew nothing of. He was always dressed in a suit with a vest and a tie. He spoke only Yiddish and whenever I saw him he would say things to me that I couldn’t understand, but from the expression on his face and the happiness in his eyes I knew it was loving. He would reach down, extend his hand to me, and urge me to take what he held. “Nem, nem,” he would say. When I reached into his hand, there was always a dime.

I wished that I had been able to speak with him, but it was not to be, because he was part of a trap that I had discerned, and into which I was loath to fall. Observation had confirmed that while Zaide spoke only Yiddish, Uncle Israel, who was not as old as Zaide, spoke both Yiddish and English. My parents, younger still, spoke almost exclusively English, but occasionally an unexpectedly elaborate Yiddish was spoken by them. I, being so young, of course, spoke only English. The momentous conclusion I drew from my observations was to affect me for many years. The evidence showed that as one gets older one gradually loses the ability to speak English and eventually comes to speak only Yiddish. This I was determined not to allow; it would never happen to me. Therefore, I deliberately refused to learn Yiddish, and suspected all foreign languages to be insidiously contagious, and a threat to my mother tongue. Studying for my Bar Mitzvah was pure hell, and I fought valiantly, delaying the learning process whenever I could, which only extended the pain I had to suffer.


Len's "grandfather" was actually his great-grandfather Solomon Lutsky who died in June 1944.

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