Thursday, December 13, 2012

Apricots and Pinchus Goldhar

From his 1947 obituary, "Pinchus Goldhar, the Prince of modern Yiddish
 literature in the Southern Hemisphere...A golden thread connecting two worlds, the world of yesterday's Poland and to-day's Australia has been broken."
On our dining room table a few days ago there were two remarkable collections--our apricot harvest and the found papers of the father of Yiddish literature in Australia, Pinchus Goldhar.

The Found Papers of Pinchus Goldhar
December 9, 2012
Early this morning, Victor, our neighbor who had been a friend of a woman named Esther brought to me two plastic bags smelling strongly of mildew. "They were left behind in the house that now has renters in it, and you might know what to do with them." I was only a peripheral observer of what had happened in the house across Dawson Street, the home of Esther Rosenbaum, for so many years, her childhood home. I had never met her, but in the 11 years we have been living on Fitzgibbon Avenue, I had often seen an older woman making her way down Dawson Street, her head down, her large body moving down the street with its own particular cadence. I saw her in the regular way I would see people I did not know personally walking down Broadway on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, my previous home. She became a familiar neighborhood personage, appearing regularly, giving rise to some questions, but nothing more. This is the strange kind of urban intimacy, the regular appearance of a person, unknown but missed if not seen.

Three months ago, Victor asked me if I knew that there was another Jewish woman who lived nearby. "Esther, " he said. Then he described her and I knew this was my regular apparition. Esther Rosenbaum was part of Victor's and Virginia's extended family of neighborhood friends. "You should meet," he said, but this never happened. Esther's New York based son became concerned about her health and the state of her living conditions here and last month Esther was whisked away to an apartment in Queens, New York. Victor was in charge of getting her house ready for renting, and thus, the found papers left behind at the back of a closet.

I am now in the process of inventorying and unfolding the papers, putting them in acid free sleeves, trying to do the first steps of archival preservation, preparing a list of what was in those bags, a list that will be sent to Esther and her family in New York so they can decide where the papers should go--stay here or be returned to New York. Here I sit, being educated in the history of Yiddish literature in Australia, as I ply the archival skills I learned as co-founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives back in New York over 40 years ago. I do not know what Pinchus or Esther would think of this lineage, but Yiddish and lesbians were both unwanted beings at different times throughout history. Here I am at 72 finding once again, the moments of a writer's life in my hands, opening up the faded and stained papers to the light of another day. 

I read the few translations of Godhar's work into English that exist, most done by his friend, Judah Waten, and I am walking down the dusty road of a dwindling mining town outside of Ballarat, where the rabbi is at odds with his desperately needed minyan and so much more, I stand outside a pawn shop on Lygon street of the 1940s with the Jewish merchants struggling to hold on, and I understand, even so many years later, this struggle to find a home for Yiddishkite in a country so far from Lodz, the Polish city where so many Australian Jews began their lives. Not a sentimentalist by any means, Goldhar's characters are worn and often headed in the wrong direction, but the writer himself refused to leave his belief in the strength of Yiddish culture behind, carrying those letters that seem to be all the same across page after page of aging manuscript. I can't escape my own longing for another place and the puzzle, the heart pains, that my own sense of Jewishness delivers to me these days. I wonder at this writer, who found the Yiddish words to describe this new world of his, to incorporate into his Polish Jewish imagination the tang of the gum trees, the sweat of the bush.

"Born in Poland in 1901, Mr. Godhar stemmed from Lodz and emigrated to Australia in 1928. As a Yiddish journalist he could not, at first, continue his profession so in 1931" he founded the first Yiddish newspaper in this country, Australier Leben, while working his days in a dying factory in Richmond. As his daughter described in one of the writings I found, there he was, with one hand turning the paddle that pushed the socks around the vat, and with the other editing his columns for the newspaper.

"His was a lonely outpost of Yiddish and he felt keenly his isolation from the mainstream of Yiddish creativity in Europe and America. Loneliness and uprootedness became the main theme of his Australian tales." Goldhar was to have a short life, he died in 1947 and forty-five years of age, but he outlasted the calculated destruction of the Yiddish speaking villagers of Europe.

"Goldhar died young and lived only a relatively short time in Australia but he achieved a number of 'firsts.' He was the first to publish a Yiddish literary book, the first editor of a Yiddish paper, the first Yiddish writer to be included in Australian anthologies, the first to translate Australian writers into Yiddish and certainly was one of the founders if a literature written by 'New Australians' before the term 'New Australian' even existed." (Quotes from article in The Australian Jewish News, January 25, 1985.

(to be continued)

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