When I was a child, my extended family would gather regularly to eat, kibbitz, play card games, and tell stories—well, mostly to listen to my maternal grandfather tell stories.
He was an uneducated man, and I never saw him read a book that was not a prayerbook. (Even then, it was not so much reading as ensuring that he was literally on the same page as everyone else.)
But he didn’t need books to be a master storyteller. Somehow, he always had the perfect anecdote for any situation at his fingertips.
Savvy and deceptively strong, he worked as a butcher well into his eighties. Boston’s Haymarket Square, in those days, was a sprawling bazaar of food purveyors operating from sawdust-strewn shops and pushcarts. You might hear a dozen languages there, but the lingua franca of the market was talk: news and banter, innuendo and muttered curses, gossip and affectionate teasing.
One year, home for a college break and slouching through one of our interminable family shindigs, I mentioned to a cousin that I was studying Russian. This was the era of glasnost, the new policy of openness in the Soviet Union, and familiarity with this exotic language seemed potentially useful. (Spoiler: It turned out to be nothing of the sort.)
This cousin, fascinated, wanted me to try out my new language skills on my grandfather. Our ancestors had spent a few hundred years in Russia before my grandparents emigrated to the U.S. While Yiddish was their first language, they must know some Russian, right?
“Ask him!” said the cousin.
“Zaydeh,” I called across the dining room, “govorite po-Russki?”
My grandfather looked up, startled, and the room turned oddly quiet.
And then, in perfectly accented Russian, he said: “Ya nichevo ne znayu.”
I laughed while everyone else waited for a translation. Finally, I told them, “I asked him if he speaks Russian. And he answered, ‘I don’t know anything.’ ”
Everyone laughed along with me. The subtext was clear: First, he did, indeed, understand Russian. And second, the Jews of czarist Russia, as a matter of course, pretended ignorance when dealing with officialdom. They lived precarious lives, and it must have been safer that way.
I remember my grandfather afterward, drumming his fingers on the tablecloth, smiling faintly, saying nothing. Had my careless question thrown him back into a world he’d rather forget? Was he thinking of his birthplace, his childhood? More likely, given his silence, was he recalling a pogrom or the draft notice that would have swept him into the Czar’s army, had his family remained in Russia?
For whatever reason, I never asked him about his life there. And now I’ll never know.
My grandfather probably would have hated this story, with no punchline or satisfying conclusion. But it stays with me anyway. What do we remember? What do we want to forget? Which connections do we make, and which are lost forever?
Ask those questions, folks. It's the only way we can ever really know other people—and ourselves.