At the turn of the century when my grandma Rose was just twelve years old, she came to America from Romania on an aging merchant steamer with her younger brother, my uncle Sol, who was nine. They were two dirt-poor Yiddish speaking Jewish kids from Tulcea, near the coast of the Black Sea and they’d made the trip to America entirely by themselves. The perilousness of their journey is virtually impossible to grasp for anyone who travels across oceans these days in the safety and comfort of modern jet aircraft. No doubt the trip made an indelible impression on them both. Perhaps that’s why my grandma and her brother never ventured very far from their circle of Yiddish speaking friends or from the members of their extended family, all of whom shared similar experiences.
My grandma, who died in 1984, had been in America for nearly seventy-five years and though she spoke English well (albeit with a very strong accent) I’d never once heard her use a sentence that didn’t contain at least some Yiddish. She was a storyteller at heart, and the ones I was most taken with as a kid were the stories she’d tell about people dying on that boat trip to America; a tired old ship pitching and rolling across the Atlantic, the crew wrapping up the dead in moldy canvas —mostly old people who’d given in to the rigors of the trip, but also very young children; my grandma Rose and her little brother watching as the tiny bodies were heaved over the side of the boat and into the soot-grey waves.
But of all the things my grandma gave me, what I treasure most was her Yiddish song, arguably the saddest song ever written. It was the song she’d sing while bathing me, before tucking me into bed, and in all manner of quiet moments —it was not your standard lullaby to be sure. It was a song that I took in by osmosis; it entered my cells as an infant, flowed through my veins as a young boy, and finally as an adolescent it had been etched into my permanent memory.
Never was there a Delta blues or an Irish lament more melancholy than this true Yiddish folk song. My grandma told me the song was composed spontaneously, improvised really, by a young mother who, for a half a loaf of black bread and a pear, had hired her to watch over the woman’s sick child. The young woman’s husband had died only days before of tuberculosis, and in the cradle she was rocking lay her infant daughter, who was also just days away from death. My Grandma, who was only eight years old at the time, learned the song from the woman, hearing the mournful tune over and over as she took turns rocking the cradle. My grandma called it, “Ein Shlafe Min Kindt”, after its first line.
“Sleep my child, close your eyes
Your father has died and I’m alone
Who can bear such sorrow
Who knows from such loneliness
What trouble life brings
Only to soothe you does my heart still beat…”
My jeans and my ski jacket are bulging. I’ve just stolen six feet of plastic tubing and some Pyrex beakers from the eighth grade chemistry lab in the hopes of creating the world’s most elaborate hookah pipe. On my way downstairs to my bedroom I pass my grandma Rose, in the kitchen as she sits at the table chopping green pepper, eggplant, and Spanish onion. “I’m making your favorite, pot’ligel” she calls out. “No thanks grandma,” I say. “I’ve got a lot of homework to do.” Romanian eggplant is definitely not what concerns me at the moment.
After unloading the tubing and placing it on my bed, I put side-two of Neil Young’s, “After The Gold Rush” on my stereo and start to work on the pipe. Finally, when it’s met my very modest standards of excellence, I reach up into my closet, move some old sweaters from the top shelf, and pop loose the ceiling tile that I use to secrete my ever-dwindling stash of Minnesota Green. The THC level in this pot is so meager I figure I’ll need to smoke at least a quarter ounce to get high. I open the window in the window-well above my bed, light the bowl of my newly-minted hookah, and let the smoke draft out into our snow-filled backyard. After fifteen minutes of water-cooled splendor, I do in fact get high, very high, and I walk back upstairs to find my grandma Rose still busy chopping vegetables and humming quietly to herself.
I stand in the kitchen watching her now, struck by how old she looks. I stare at her hair, white and thinning, and at the pale creases on the skin of her face. Suddenly, she’s no longer just my ubiquitous —grandma Rose, she’s been transmuted into something bordering on the sacred; someone so beautiful that my eyes start to well up with tears just from looking at her. True… I’m pretty toasted, but still, I am profoundly cognizant, (perhaps for the first time ever), that someone I love very much will one day, (and likely, very soon) be dead and gone forever. This makes me freeze in a kind of sadness-trance until my grandma, who’s apparently oblivious to my state of mind looks up and says, “Peter, mine tirah kindt, vilts du a bissel Potli’jel on some coilige?” “Grandma,” I say, “No thank you I’m not hungry at the moment, but… would you sing me that song, the Yiddish one that you always sing?” I can see her face brighten at the request and now she sings the song for me several times in her sweetly lilting, bird-like voice, until I’m able to write down a transliteration of the entire thing.
Several years after that afternoon in the kitchen, as my grandma began her rapid decline into senility, my mother asked me to sing “Eine Shlafe” to her, as if to pull her back to us. It actually worked for a while. Hearing me sing it made her sit up straighter in her chair, made her seem as though her eyes had a bit more light in them. And sometimes when I’d I sing her the song I’d catch her mouthing its first words: “Ein Shlafe mein kint din egelach,”—Sleep my child, close your eyes.