Daniel Mendelsohn and Leon Wieseltier
On a frigid Tuesday evening, January 16th, 2007, with my collar turned up and my head turned down, I found myself walking through Union Square, past a homeless man shaking a few frozen pennies in an otherwise empty Dunkin’ Donuts hot-cup and wiggling a few frozen fingers in an otherwise empty glove, towards the Center for Jewish History at 15 West 16th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues.
The Center for Jewish History is made up of five Jewish historical, scholarly and arts institutions: the American Jewish Historical Society; the American Sephardi Federation; the Leo Baeck Institute; the Yeshiva University Museum; and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. My trip through Union Square (which, though geometrically incorrect, is more catchy than Union Rectangle) was for an event that the YIVO Board Of Overseers was presenting, titled, Galicia Mon Amour – Leon Wieseltier In Conversation With Daniel Mendelsohn.
Though I am personally of Russian pedigree (not to mention an eighth Georgian – no, not gone-with-the-wind, plantation Georgia), with my only genealogical connection to Galicia being the proverbial great-aunt who wears too much perfume, gives too many lipstick kisses and personifies the Yiddish word Zaftig, I nevertheless thought that Galicia, a country that today has no borders, would make for some pretty interesting conversation – and, if Galicia disappointed, I thought the conversers, with enough literary awards between them to quell (quill?) any wannabe critic, would not.
Leon Wieseltier, the Literary Editor of The New Republic since 1983 and the author of Kaddish, winner of the 1998 National Jewish Book Award, was one half of the conversation; the other half was Daniel Mendelsohn, an author, journalist and critic whose latest book, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, was published in September by HarperCollins.
What these two have in common is certainly not their heads – while Wieseltier has a head covered in snow-white locks, Mendelsohn has a head that brings to mind Mr. Clean – but rather where their heads come from – Wieseltier’s comes from Stryy, Mendelsohn’s comes from Volokhov, the Galicianer cities of their respective ancestry.
The conversation between the two of them focused on the experiences they encountered on their journeys “back” (quotations because neither of them was actually physically there before) to Galicia.
Mr. Wieseltier’s and Mr. Mendelsohn’s conversation reflected the countless conversations I’ve heard many other children and grandchildren have after they’ve visited the cities and countries their parents and grandparents came from. What was unique to this conversation was Wieseltier’s and Mendelsohn’s ability to word what at times can be difficult to articulate.
For instance: the way Wieseltier said that, “For me, it’s the book that gives the place reality; not the place that gives the book reality,” explaining how, for him, a person who did not actually live in the shtetl but whose family came from the shtetl, the whole reality of the place comes alive only through the books on the shelf; whereas for someone who actually lived in the shtetl the books merely reflect the reality.
Or, how Mendelsohn described standing in Auschwitz, in front of the sign that said, “In this room they murdered the female prisoners…” and one of these tall, blond Swedes who was part of a tour group, turns to her friend and says, “If I don’t have an Evian right now, I’m going to die.”
Wieseltier, a descendant of Yom Tov Lipmann Heller, the 16th-17th century Rabbi and poet who authored the Mishnaic commentary, Tosfos Yom Tov, sprinkled his part of the conversation with verses from Mishlei (Proverbs) and pieces from the Talmud. Wieseltier’s mother came from a Chassidishe background: her father was a Chortkover Chassid, related to the Ruzhiner dynasty, and, as Wieseltier said, “[his grandfather] went to the Rebbe [for a blessing] for a toothache – nothing my HMO would cover.”
Mendelsohn didn’t really speak of his personal family history and therefore neither will I.
At times, the conversation was seamless, with Mendelsohn baiting the crowd with an interesting bit of information and Wieseltier reeling them in with an encore of witticism. Like when Mendelsohn said, he was walking by a shul (synagogue) and he heard beautiful davening (prayer) coming from inside. He got really excited – finally here are some living Jews – and hurried in… only to find that the prayer was a recording and the Jews were cardboard cutouts (I guess to attract tourists). After a pause to allow for the audience’s exclamation of disappointment, Wieseltier polished it off with, “Just like some American shuls.”
At other times, Wieseltier did his own thing (though entertaining I must say) with Mendelsohn, now more an eavesdropper than a converser, nodding his consent into his mike.
The event itself was stuffed fuller than a Jew at a buffet. They even added a room where people could watch the conversation via a huge screen. And, as the barometer of any event (or anything really) can be measured by the audience’s reaction, the spontaneous laughter, ample applause and concurring headshake of those in agreement seemed to suggest the conversation was well worth a listen. (The only complaint I heard, from an elderly woman in perpetual nose-blow who was sitting behind me, was that they should put a map of Galicia up on the screen so that she could follow the trek through the countless cities mentioned.)
Though I still cannot understand why the title of the conversation was Galicia Mon Amour as opposed to Galicia Meyn Libeh (I’m sorry to disappoint the French, but most Galicianer spoke Yiddish), I think that I, a Russian-Georgian, can now understand a Galicianer conversation.