Yiddishlands takes readers back to the Old Country

Soon after her arrival in Canada in 1940, Masha Roskies sat down to a meal at her sister-in-law’s house in Montreal and, seeing that only “Canadian bread” (aka Wonder bread) was on the table, asked for a piece of real bread instead.

When her aunt curtly replied that “this was what one ate in Canada, and she might as well get used to it,” Masha burst out crying, already longing for the thick black breads of her youth in Lithuania.

David Roskies tells the story in “Yiddish-lands,” his recent prize-winning memoir that memorializes his late mother, Masha, and lovingly recalls her well-storied life and family’s past in a series of interwoven chapters that focus initially on her life and then shift into his own.

The book, published last year, was one of eight to win a Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Award, and it also won an award for works on Yiddish literature.

Born in Montreal in 1948, Roskies seems to have inherited his mother’s reverence for Yiddish culture, as well as her sense that all Canadian bread and experience pale in comparison to the vital and richly fulfilling Yiddish life once lived in Europe.

The story goes that the first thing David heard at birth was his mother singing “The Rebbe Elimeylekh,” one of hundreds of Yiddish folk songs that she carried in her head. Masha had such a trove of musical culture that she was once recorded by the New York–based YIVO Jewish Institute for Research (an audio CD of Masha singing in Yiddish, Russian and Polish is included inside the book’s back cover).

Thus was “Dovidl’s” introduction to the world of Lithuanian Jewish culture that surrounded him as a child. He eventually became so knowledgeable and proficient that at age 15, noted Yiddishist Max Weinreich told him, “Fraynd Roskies, di yidish-forshung darf aykh hobn,” (the field of Yiddish needs you).

Sure enough, Roskies is now a professor of Yiddish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and his sister, Ruth Wisse, is a writer and professor of Yiddish literature and comparative literature at Harvard University.

“Yiddishlands” begins with a flashback to his grandmother’s storybook wedding in 1878 in Vilna, Lithuania. Fradl Matz then gave birth to some 10 children by her first husband before being widowed; she remarried and gave birth to Masha in 1906 in Vilna.

Besides taking care of her large family, Fradl ran Matz Press, the family publishing house that produced prayer- books, Bibles and popular Yiddish literature. Roskies writes about the great dilemma Matz Press faced after the Germans occupied Vilna and demanded that the company remove the prayer for the tsar from its prayerbooks.

Complying with the order would have been considered an act of disloyalty to the previous Russian regime, punishable should the Russians regain power. So the task had to be kept secretive, and 9-year-old Masha excised the pages from each book cleanly with a straight-edged razor.

When the story switches to Canada, the reader soon discovers that Masha Roskies was “a patroness of the Yiddish arts such as Montreal had never seen.” David Roskies tells numerous stories about such prominent Yiddish writers as I.B. Singer, Melekh Ravitch, Itsik Manger, Avrom Sutzkever and Rachel Korn and their interactions with his mother.

“Yiddishlands” is a richly transcendent piece of writing that salvages many episodes of personal, family and social history, not only in the Old Country but in modern Montreal and numerous other places (hence the plural title).

“I started writing this book the day I got up from shiva after my mother died,” Roskies said. “It was a way of keeping her alive. As long as I was writing the book, I was still in conversation with her. When that draft was over, I could finally let go.”

At the Canadian Jewish Book awards ceremony in May, Roskies concluded his acceptance speech by singing a Yiddish song from his mother’s repertoire — one that was first sung in Vilna in 1919.

“Yiddishlands: A Memoir”
by David Roskies (240 pages, Wayne State University Press, $27.95)