Wild Things to Do - Idelsohn Again
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Wild Things to Do - Idelsohn Again
Copyright © 2009 Jon Seligman.  All Rights Reserved.
[Prologue] [Idelsohn] [Yiska Loves Jesus] [Hello Goodman Joffe] [Joffes and Idelsohns] [Yiska's Story] [Arthur and Joe] [Epilogue] [A.Z. Idelsohn]
[Prologue] [Idelsohn] [Yiska Loves Jesus] [Hello Goodman Joffe] [Joffes and Idelsohns] [Yiska's Story] [Arthur and Joe] [Epilogue]
[A.Z. Idelsohn and Hava Nagila - A Biography]
Jump forward another generation.

This is really Yiska's story. Yiska means the one who delves in spiritual ways, the prophetess. In many ways, although she was the youngest out of Shoshana, Dena and Elihayu, Yiska like her mother Zilla (who was the eldest), lived a life of sacrifice and service to her parents and siblings.

When? How did AZ get to Palestine from Leipzig? Was he born in Leipzig?

Dena, according to Yiska, knew no fear as a child. She was lively, pretty, loveable and father's favorite. In about 1973 when I (JM ) was thirteen I left my brand new blue and white Highlands North school blazer at Maritz Brothers Inanda. We had played them an away match at rugby and I had forgotten it under a tree beside the field. Ora was away on holiday and Dena was staying with us at 79 Atholl Oaklands Rd. Dena had already suffered a stroke and I had been forbidden by Ora to drive with her. Together we weighed this up against the trouble we would get into for losing the blazer (there are things even the bravest are scared of) and piled into her old grey Volvo with the very long gear stick and the speedometer that crept out the side of the dashboard like serpents tongue. Swerving deliciously and illegally this way and that across the lanes we got the blazer and returned to 79. It was me approximately five years later who smashed the same Volvo whilst racing to get to a soccer match. It was raining and my feet which already had my boots with six screw in studs underneath slipped off the brakes when a traffic light at the bottom of a hill changed unexpectedly. I still see Volvos like that on the roads of Johannesburg and wish I had mine.

As a little girl in Jerusalem, Dena lived her own life with her friends. She came home very late in the evenings and when she entered the home which was near the Old City of Jerusalem, the whole household breathed a sigh of relief. It was a stone house made of pretty pink stones and the family occupied the first floor. There was no electricity or running water and all cooking was done on a primus. An Arab man delivered drinking water and when anti settler riots ensued, this same man told the mobs that the people living in that house were not Jews. Even the riots didn't deter Dena's walkabouts and she continued to walk in dark visiting friends. The children were on friendly terms with their Arabic neighbours, they played with their kids who they conversed with in Arabic. Yiska did Ima's shopping for her in Meir Sharim for fruit and veg and Yiska describes it as a very happy childhood.

There was a fierce dog that lived next door and Dena loved to tease it and it bit her. Another time a horse was galloping down the road. Yiska gasped and took a step back but Dena shrieked with delight and ran straight into the oncoming horse and broke her collar bone.

In 1915 AZ heard a Chasidic melody in a little synagogue in Palestine, wrote it down, and in 1918 he taught his own choir to sing it. He also added the words Hava Nagilla. It was a catchy tune.  In a week it was being sung all over school and within a month all over Europe.

I've always heard and told this story like he composed it but the truth is that without him we wouldn't have this song, certainly not in this form and with these words. AZ's voice too was brilliant, just like a cantor (remember he was trained by Hillel - Cantor of Leipzig, his wife's father). Yiska and Dena would hear AZ practicing up and down the scales. In Jerusalem congregations followed him to hear him sing in various synagogues

He then left the family in Jerusalem and travelled to Germany to pursue his work. In 1921 the family received a letter from Avram Zvi that they would be moving to Germany. Zilla, Shoshana, Dena and Eliyahu all loved Palestine and this first relocation was a rupture. AZ hired 2 motor cars and they began the long ride to Jaffa Harbour. It was an unpleasant journey, the roads were terrible even in 1978 when I (Yiska) visited Israel, littered with potholes and tanks from the 76 war. The family arrived exhausted and covered in thick dust. Rowing boats took them and their possessions to the ship. Compared to the conditions they had been living under their quarters seemed luxurious. It was a lovely cabin with 8 beds, running water, good meals, a bath room and toilet.

The ship stopped at many ports, and Dena, Shoshana and Zilla disembarked several times but not Yiska. They all got off at Marseille, spent one night at a hotel and took a train to Paris and then to Leipzig. Hillel Scneider, a tall handsome man met them at the station. Yiska was very surprised when AZ embraced Hillel warmly, she had never seen her father partake in any displays of emotion. They stayed at his apartment for some time and saw him go about his work, officiating at funerals and weddings.

As foreigners, especially Jewish ones it was impossible to find an apartment big enough for the six of them to rent, so Eliezer and Shoshana were sent to boarding school in town, and Shoshana to one in Heidelberg. Dena and Yiska learned to speak hog Deutche. Although it was a Jewish German school they were not allowed to talk in Hebrew. The German speaking girls thought we were speaking badly of them but in fact they didn't know how to do this. In their home they only spoke good of people. At Shoshana's school it turned out that there was no iodine in the water and her goiter began to trouble her. From a slim pretty girl she became fat with bulging eyes and a swollen neck.  Yiska and Ima were shocked when they met her at the station on her first visit home. Ima took her to a specialist and with iodine she began to improve. Shoshana's love for dancing the horah and Russian kozatskas always remained with her and she never did abandon her singing. Father groomed her to be a lovely soloist in his choir in Jerusalem. She alone went with him to Berlin where she assisted AZ transcribing his lyrics and in his work. She had a beautiful Hebrew handwriting.

Dena was two years older than Yiska and always the bossy one but when they went to Germany Yiska says Dena suddenly came to rely on her younger sister and had more confidence in Yiska than she had in herself. It didn't take long however for Dena to take the reigns again. For one thing she held the purse strings. When they went to the markets Yiska always eyed the beautiful black cherries grown in those parts and often begged Dena for a few coins to buy some. "I don't like cherries," was Dena's reply. Dena means one who judges. Dena hoarded all the coins, which were their pocket money, for so long that eventually they became worthless.

Yiska tells this story.

In 1961 Dena and I went on 6 week tour from South Africa. In Switzerland I saw a fruit shop and I bought the largest punnet of cherries and settled down to eat it without offering Dena. "You are a nice one, you don't offer me any cherries," said Dena.  "Don't you remember," replied Yiska, "you don't like them."

In 1923 father's younger sister Becky, her husband and her two young sons from Johannesburg visited Rega in Latvia and they stopped in Berlin. She suggested that Shoshana whose health had not fully recovered accompany them back to Johannesburg where the climate would be more agreeable. Ima had to make a quick decision. It was very difficult to part with our dear sister but in her own interests it was decided she should accompany Becky back to Johannesburg.

At first in Germany Ima found a tiny room in the poorest suburb which was teeming with prostitutes and children. There was an oven to heat the room, a table, two primus stoves and an alcove for coal. There was a bed for Ima, a mattress for Dena, and a narrow sofa for me, which stood under a warped window. On snowy and rainy nights I got drenched and froze and it wasn't long before Ima became ill and Dena developed asthma. I looked after both of them which included doing all the shopping.  Then AZ left on a lecturing tour and when our grandpa Hillel visited us there he demanded we move to his apartment which we did.

From there the family moved to Berlin to better rooms. AZ's accompanist, Mr Dimont found them an apartment but Zilla became very ill and required a serious operation. Yiska was 11 and every day she cooked a stew for her father and for Mr Dimont. She befriended Mr Dimont's daughters who both were very musical especially the one. They eventually emigrated to Brazil. One day whilst listening to the radio Yiska heard the announcer say that the next piece was to be performed by Lily Dimont who had by then become a famous pianist. During the time the two families spent in Berlin, father decided to record a number of songs and assembled Mr Dimont and all their children in the apartment. They recorded 10 records and copies were sent to Shoshanna in Johannesburg. These are now in Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Before long funds ran out and father began a lecture tour in the US, coast to coast. For two years Zilla, Dena and Yiska remained in Germany. At boarding school they had so few garments it was difficult to be untidy and the housemistress was always holding the Idelsohn sisters up as models of neatness.

Ima visited us several times and one time she wrote to inform us that we were to return to Palestine.  This time we didn't travel in any kind of luxury and we boarded a cargo ship in Marseille. From there we passed Alexandria and we travelled 4th class in room with bare wooden benches holding 50 people. Many were going to settle on kibbutzim. We had brought no pillows or blankets, we were totally unprepared but despite this discomfort we met lovely people and all helped each other. From Alexandria we caught a train to Tel Aviv.

As soon as we arrived in Jerusalem, Ima immediately repaid her debts of three and a half years ago. Everyone said they were always sure Ima would pay them back. She rented a two room apartment and hired a student teacher to help Dena and I meet the required standard for school. This young man paid more attention to me than to Dena who
(by Yiska's telling) was the prettier of the two. His attentions were unwelcome. She was only 14. Then to their dismay AZ didn't join them. He wrote that he had been offered a chair as Professor of Hebrew Liturgy and Jewish music at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and for them to join him asap. Once again the two girls and their mother had to leave their beloved homeland. With heavy hearts they sold their few pieces of furniture and set sail in another cargo ship across the ocean. Ima was a poor sailor but Dena and Yiska enjoyed it. One day two little girls appeared and told them that their baby sister was crying. Zilla found the mother desperate with a very sick infant. At Athens the mother disembarked and went ashore to find a doctor. While the doctor was examining the child it died and the mother tried to delay the ship's departure in order to organise a proper Jewish burial. The captain refused. The mother stayed in Athens and asked Dena and Yiska to look after her two young daughters.

The ship hit heavy storms and dipped through mountainous waves. The rudder tore off, waves splashed on deck and into cabins, and Dena and Yiska were the only passengers who came to meals. Even the waiters were sick so for the two girls it was self service.

At some point upon reaching America the father of the two young girls arrived in a motor boat and took them away. They were so so happy to see him. In Boston the captain said the ship had taken a battering and that it would sail no further.

After this difficult journey there was an unexpected surprise waiting for them in Cincinnati. They were welcomed by Mr and Mrs Cohen with whom AZ had been staying in a beautiful double storied house. Mrs Cohen taught Yiska and Dena English and general knowledge for three months. Dena's general knowledge was good, Yiska's was nil. At the beginning or the year they were enrolled in the same class at school. "If you eat a hot potato, you'll be speaking American English," another immigrant child told them. Dena found it more difficult to learn the language than Yiska. Then Ima fell ill and needed another serious operation. The surgeon in Chicago warned the family that her chances of surviving it were not good but Zilla came back the joy of her family.

Ima although never formally educated was an avid reader of philosophy and she had a lovely soprano singing voice. Around this time she had some singing lessons and even helped AZ improve his techniques.

In 1927 AZ sent Ima and Dena back to SA and Yiska who was 16 remained with her father to keep house. The separation was a privation Yiska could hardly bear. Here as an aside Yiska tells me that all the other professors wives were educated and that he was no longer proud of his wife.