Wild Things to Do - Yiska Loves Jesus
Wild Things to Do - Yiska Loves Jesus
Copyright © 2009 Jon Seligman. All Rights Reserved.
Aunt Yiska is 86 years old. She was born in Palestine. She lives in Killarney. Her father, Avram Zvi Idelsohn, composed Hava Nagila. She speaks Hebrew, Yiddish, German, Ladino, Aramaic, and English. Her family first introduced Reform Judaism into South Africa. Okay, but how did she get into Jesus? And at her age?
"Three years ago I was shopping at the Checkers in Killarney Mall. I catch a bus there, that's not so bad, but once my shopping bag is full it's difficult so I look for a nice friendly face to give me a lift home.
"I'd forgotten my spectacles at home. At the cheese counter I asked the assistant, what is this cheese, how much is it, what's this one, and that one.
"All the cheeses I'd chosen were waiting to be rung up. There was Cheddar, Emmentaler, some Philadelphia cottage cheese. All kosher of course.
"A woman holding some pamphlets asked me if I loved cheeses. I replied, yes I love cheeses. She had a very friendly face which is uncommon nowadays. She told me her name was Dot.
"I commented on the weather but right away she brought the conversation back to cheeses. My hearing is not so good but I became aware that she was very keen to discuss cheeses. Not everything she said made complete sense but then again my hearing is not so good. In reply to her questions I told her that I'd loved cheeses as long as I could remember and that I generally bought several and not only one variety of cheese. For her there was only one but I couldn't make out which one it was.
"When her groceries had been rung up she asked me for my address. I was delighted. Normally I have to ask several people for a lift home before one obliges. To be honest, as soon as I saw her friendly face the thought crossed my mind. Dot wrote down my address in a diary. Then she asked me for my telephone number. This surprised me so I asked why she needed my telephone number.
"She said: 'So I can phone you to arrange a time to discuss cheeses.'
"She took me home and when she left me she handed me one of her pamphlets.
"I took it in and with my spectacles I found it was called The Watchtower. To this day Dot comes to visit me every week and we discuss Jesus, over tea and biscuits."
This was one of the first stories I ever had published. Jump one generation forward, one folder down to my great grandparents. Enter Great Granny Zilla one of 11. She was born in Newstadt Chervint. Yiska calls her Ima and pronounces her name as Tzilla. She was Hillel and Ester's eldest daughter and brought up all her siblings and her parents herself. This was customary then, the sacrifice of the eldest daughter. Eda who was fortunate enough to come next, got all the qualifications a girl needed, qualified as a social worker and married Lars the cantor. More about her later.
I recently met an off-spring of that Scandinavian shoot. Lars Jakob Muchinsky. He is a professor who lives in Copenhagen. Lars Jakob has a research interest in South African MK youth who abandoned their education to fight for for our countries freedom from apartheid. Lars Jakob's mother' Louisa was Zilla's sister. Only last week here in Jo'burg I met Lars Jakob and his wife Trina, who I believe is a gypsy and who I welcome as a beautiful part of my story and of my family's diversity. Trina went to school with Lars Jakob and her mother taught a version of body therapy similar to the Alexander technique at the same school. Zilla had only one brother Leo. He was a fine pianist.
How do we account for 11 siblings. Leo came to Palestine. Leo taught maths, art and German in a school supported by German Jews in Jerusalem. Zophie accompanied him to Palestine where she attended art school. Eda was spared by the Nazis because she was alrady in a wheel chair and of no use to them. Stayed in Oslo. Her husband Jakob perished. Louisa's (LJ's mother) husband Mendel also died in the camps. Berta who was beautiful married out of the faith. Dora and husband Nathan to Palestine and Rosa and Ossius (husband) and Mina and Mattus. 2 sisters married 2 brothers in US. Anna and ... Anna had 2 children, one died as US soldier in WW2,
Zilla preferred giving to getting, she followed her husband's roving career over land and sea, learned German, Yiddish, English, and Hebrew, settling, unsettling, settling, adapting. She was very talented, but had no formal education or training. Whilst her husband, when he got to America perhaps looked down on her, it was still Granny Zilla with her beautiful voice and a few lessons, who helped him improve his technique and who stood by him when he needed her. She used to compose beautiful Yiddish poems and songs. This one she made one for Danny when he was born in the US.
Grampa Avram Zvi translated the words from Yiddish into Hebrew. Danny has a recording of it being sung.
Zilla is on my box. She is standing alone, posing for the camera in a studio in Leipzig. She is wearing a long black dress and looks stunningly beautiful. And she is there again round the corner sitting on the beach in Florida beside her man who has already suffered a stroke. I hunted and hunted for a photo of AZ smiling and this one was the only one I could find. Around this time he tried to hang himself with a tie whilst living in Miami but he also came to appreciate all Zilla's devotion and sacrifice and he dedicated the 9th volume of his 'Thesaurus of Hebrew and Oriental Melodies' to his wife.
It is already late my child
sleep in good health
a little angel with two wings
she will stand next to your cradle and swing you
and she will sing a little song
sleep well my child
Avram (Abraham)Zvi Idelsohn
1882 - 1938
And now we come to Avram Zvi himself, the most famous member of our family that we know of. To be honest, I've always had an uneasy relationship with him and his memory and the stories that fly around about him. It is evident in even in Yiska's telling that he was not always kind and fair to Zilla, and that his passion for his work came first. This too has been the prevailing dominant story. I don't want to bury or whitewash this one but I am in search for others too.
He was born in Latvia, near Libau, in a town called Felixburg which was renamed Kurland by the Russians. As a child his father Azriel took him to synagogue to sing every day and not only on Sabbath and high holidays. His great devotion was to Chasidic music. He sang in choirs and travelled as a young man and one day he met a great rabbi who told him that he was in the wrong place and that he should go to Berlin. He sang in a choir tunes that were not to his liking of and finally found Hillel who became his master. From there AZ gave 30 years of his best life to his research. He could write musical notes like the letters of the alphabet. From little synagogue to little synagogue he passed across Israel, most often on foot on the Sabbath. Once the sun had set and he was permitted to write, he took out his pencil and recorded close to 5000 folk songs and cantorial melodies. These
were published in 10 volumes known as the Thesaurus, of which only a few imprints were made. One is now in Hebrew University of Jerusalem and rabbis need to study it to pass their examinations.
AZ lived much of his life as a professor in Cincinnati, he also lived in Johannesburg and in Leipzig and in Jerusalem. A man of the planet. His sister Rala was the first to come to South Africa and she wrote to say that there was a position as cantor at Fordsburg synagogue. He had a job which he hated as Chazan and shochet in Germany so he came over with Shoshana, and Zilla who was already pregnant with Eliyahu. They only stayed in SA one year. This was the time everyone thought he would become a Christian because the only piano was in a priest's house in Fordsburg. It was the last thing on his mind. He was not a pianist but it helped him compose. He was a great Zionist and eventually boarded a ship to Palestine. On deck he met Theodor Herzl's secretary who told him he was doing the right thing. In Jerusalem he taught theory and composition in a seminary which was just a room.
His father Azriel who was a Chasid and who could chant beautifully had instilled a great love of Jewish music in him and in the old city of Jerusalem there were 300 different "rooms" where people worshipped. He went from one to the next rescuing the old melodies. Almost 5000.
I asked Yiska, "Was this his passion?"
No, his privilege, she replied and then went on ....
He once travelled to Vienna made discs out of wax with choir and just men singing.
In Jerusalem he used to tell Yemenites and Sephardim and Samaritans to come off the street into our home to record their songs. He had been given an instrument with which to record. They often said no, it was the devil, we are not permitted to do so, but then he'd offer them money, our family's money for meals, we would often forego a meal for these.
What do I (JM) do with AZ, this great musicologist, historian, lover of tradition, wanderer, genius? Which thread of his story do I want to weave into mine?
My child Masego demands a story or three every night before she will consider falling asleep. Her granny Ora keeps her well supplied with little books. The other night she thrust one called "Would you love me?" into my sleepy hands.
Would you love a piggy that ate the last peach? Yes I'd take him dancing with me on the beach.
Would you love a moose that stands still in the street? Yes I'd go right over and wiggle his feet.
Would you love a rooster that wakes people up? Yes I'd let him drink from my favorite cup.
I'll keep loving AS, his passion for his work, I'll watch that I do not allow mine to cause me to stray from and neglect my family, and I'll blaze my stuff across this landscape called Earth in a way he'd be proud of.
It's remarkable really. I was saying how much of ourselves we can see in this folder. In psychoanalysis there is a thing called the corrective emotional experience. I don't truck much with psychoanalysis any longer but I kind of like this idea for right now. My version of the idea is that we may reconstruct and revisit bad family of origin historical experiences in order to script and perform them a different outcome. I'm a Jew for everyone's Buddha nature and there's no escaping that AZ's karma is one I could so easily have kept on blindly repeating.
Would you love a monkey with wild things to do?. Yes I'd love that monkey and I love you too.
Is this too disrespectful? Yiska gave me a whole lot of articles written about AZ and his brother Jerry and it made me want to be more respectful. He really was an amazing man. His passion for his work was quite remarkable as was the amount he achieved. So much of Jewish culture and history must have been lost in the holocaust and his efforts stand against all this loss and destruction.
Thanks AZ for teaching me that the journey is the destination. Until it was really too late to enjoy your family you kept on trying to record more and more. There is too much to document and to story and there is never any perfect place to end up. I'll keep your passion but I'll live it differently to and for you and keep on reminding myself that the most important story is happening here and now.
Before we go on let me tell you about Eliezar. The only son of AZ and Zilla he was born in 1907, two years after Shoshana, then came Dena in 1909 and Yiska in 1911. As children all four of them got on very well. The worst things they called each other were chamor, sus, agalla, donkey, horse, wagon. The move to Germany was a disruption.
Yiska says, …We had no home and he had this terrible habit of running away from boarding schools, he always was stealing Ima's money from the trunk. Eliyahu had the most beautiful voice, he played the piano and every other instrument by ear and had a lovely sense of humor. There was a clinic downstairs and he used to steal things. He did not complete school and took an apprenticeship as a furrier making coats.
"In 1924 when we returned to Tel Aviv he did not accompany us but one day Ima, Dena and I were sitting in our tiny Tel Aviv flat and out of the blue Ima stopped us talking and said I can hear Eliyahu's footsteps. There he was. He was 17 and had sold all he had and he followed us to Palestine. One time he took me to the cinema down the valley and when we returned AZ hit him like he wanted to kill him. He gave very little love to that boy. If you give your children love they can grow into something. When we left for the US he was over 18 and could not come with us. Eventually he emigrated to Brazil where he taught Hebrew. His Hebrew was beautiful. In Brazil he met a young girl and two weeks before he was to marry her he said my father is going to SA and I have to go see him. I met him at the station and do you know how much luggage he had. A little piece of folded newspaper with some socks in it. He missed his father who sailed to the US by two weeks.
"After a few years in SA he went to a matchmaker who set him up with a not so young woman called Bessie. I was the only one who attended their wedding in Queenstown. Then Bessie had a hysterectomy before she could give him any children. Through living with us in St Georges Rd and playing with Ora he had come to love children and after four years he left Bessie. He sold my piano and sailed back to Brazil where Cecil his fiance was still waiting for him. All the time he had been corresponding to her via the post office to keep Bessie in the dark. He and Cecil had three children, Dora, Fanny and Alberto. He worshipped Fanny who reminded me of Ora. He stayed in Sao Paulo where he opened a furniture shop but kept on asking us for money. I sent him some and also said this would be my last letter to him forever. He used anything to get money from us, he even lied about his daughter's kidneys. His wife helped him run the shop and she was very capable. He died at the age of 54 saying yortzhiet for his father.
As a child he always annoyed my father who had a violent temper. The poor child had no one to lead him. To attract attention he used to do naughty things."