A Minyen Yidn Un Andere Zakhn by Max Perlson

February 3, 2018

Reviewed by Joseph Kary

 

In 1938, a Yiddish journalist named Max Perlson published a slim collection of short stories and fragments of memoir under the title A minyen yidn un andere zakhn.[1] In 2017 his daughter Trina Robbins, having rediscovered the book after long believing it lost and finally reading it for the first time, published her adaptations of its stories as an English-language graphic novel.

 

The majority of the pieces in Perlson’s book were affectionately mocking sketches of life in the Russian village of Duboy that Perlson had left as a teenager; the rest dealt with life in New York. Perlson’s stories about his home town take pleasure in the eccentricities of its pious people, while those about New York range from surreal comedy to social commentary. Dogs talk to each other and a plagiarist is haunted by the spirits of the words he stole and abused; the Supreme Court protects railroad companies from their old and sick employees; and Jews visit Duboy from America in business suits to tell tales of skyscrapers.

 

It is hard now to know how much of the Duboy stories is memoir and how much fiction. But we know Perlson was not afraid to name names. “Reb Itshe, the Melamed” is about the community’s traditional teacher, a harsh disciplinarian who didn’t hesitate to thrash his students, replaced after teaching two generations by a more modern educator. An autobiographical essay written in the 1940s by a fellow emigrant mentions the town’s pious but incompetent instructor named Itshe who barely knew Hebrew, and how the students’ education was given to modern teachers who taught Russian and arithmetic along with religion.[2]

 

Perlson called his book A minyen yidn, a prayer group of at least ten Jewish men, because it consisted of ten character sketches followed by other writings. Robbins uses the original Yiddish title at the top of the cover, loosely translating it underneath as A Bunch of Jews (and other stuff), although she doesn’t adapt quite enough of the character sketches to make up the minyen.

 

Perlson emigrated to New York a year before the First World War, married a school teacher and settled in Queens. A tailor by trade, he retired young because of Parkinson’s disease and spent time writing for New York’s Yiddish-language newspapers. The stories are individually dated, from 1926 to the year of the book’s publication in 1938, and most of them likely first appeared in the daily Yiddish press.

 

Perlson’s younger daughter Trina was born the same year as his book. She became a cartoonist in the 1960s and 70s, publishing in counter-culture newspapers and underground comix. Joni Mitchell fans might recognize her as one of the Ladies of the Canyon in the song of the same name. She had no way of knowing it then but the tone of her work was like that of her father’s stories: nostalgic with a cutting edge. She has become a comics historian, rediscovering neglected women cartoonists and reprinting their work.

 

Robbins had no interest in her father’s writing when she was young; an American-born child, she was embarrassed by his old-world writings in a foreign tongue. Her own daughter, however, found on the internet a copy of her late grandfather’s long-lost book. Robbins had it translated and read her father’s stories for the first time over a century after his birth.

 

Given her talents and fascination with the forgotten byways of the past, it’s no surprise that she decided to make A minyen yidn into a long-form comic book. She scripted the adaptations and found a minyen of artists to draw them. The diversity of illustrators gives each story a distinct feel, down to their contrasting styles of hand-lettering.

 

Her book is a love letter from a daughter to her father. The first story begins with a panel showing Max Perlson and the last story ends with a drawing of him as well: two illustrations in different styles by different artists, each showing the writer sitting in the same chair outdoors in front of the same low-rise apartment building stoop in Queens, debating with passers-by or telling stories. The cover is painted by Barbara “Willy” Mendes, an artist who drew stream-of-consciousness psychedelic comic books influenced by Eastern mysticism in the heyday of the undergrounds and now focuses on paintings and murals of biblical imagery. In acid-glow colours she portrays Trina as a young girl alongside her father, surrounded by scenes from his tales.

 

The stories bounce back and forth as nostalgia gives way to social criticism and returns to farce. “Even Goats Love Flowers’ is a fable about the aesthetic sensibilities of goats, illustrated by Miriam Katin in a style out of a children’s storybook. She develops her own iconography for showing the Yiddish quality of the original writing, decorating the text with Hebraic vowel markings under and above the English letters. “I Will No Longer Write Free Verse”, by contrast, is about New York intellectuals producing a Yiddish literary magazine, drawn in a cartoonish style by Terry Laban. Other pieces veer from first person narrative to more distant social analysis. Stories like “How Mr. Remsen Lost His Pension,” about a drunken railway engineer who tried to run away with a locomotive on Christmas morning, or “Longing”, about the cracks in a marriage, have their heart in the right place but seem didactic.

 

The stories were rendered into English by Hershl Hartman in a colloquial style with Yiddish-accented dialogue. This can make the characters seem quaint, or as if they cannot speak their own language grammatically; but it works, a reminder that the characters are speaking a foreign tongue.

 

The comic book sequences stick to the words of the book. Robbins abridges or omits passages that the drawings make superfluous, but avoids rewriting. There are occasional exceptions. In “So How’s Biznes?”, Perlson muses that the world is kept alive through the virtues of children, kosher beasts, dogs and cats; Robbins replaces the virtue of kosher beasts with the virtue of naive young women. This may reflect her girl power sensibilities; or perhaps her reluctance to accept the slaughter and eating of so many of the world’s redeemers.

 

The story contrasts a Duboy where everyone is so busy praying they have no time to make money with an America where everyone is too busy running around trying to make money to think about anything else: the foreignness to the Yiddish ear of the English word “business’ is conveyed by spelling it transliterated from the Yiddish text, as biznes. "So How's Biznes" is one of the best examples of the differences between writing prose and writing comics. Perlson's prose seemed a thoughtful meditation about the differences between New York and the shtetl; but to make the story come alive visually, the staging articulates those thoughts as the ravings of the corner madman, grabbing neighbourhood children to harangue them about the craziness of the New World.

 

I don’t envy the task of translating Perlson’s use of the term yayin nesech. A biblical phrase for wine used in pagan rituals, it can mean “libation wine” or literally “spoiled wine.” But Robbins, explaining how by custom Passover wine is rendered unkosher if glimpsed by a non-Jew, translates it as “the wine of danger.” The phrase is dramatic, but leaves the reader ignorant of the source of danger and

confused about the significance of the transformation.

 

Some idiomatic expressions cannot be translated literally. Perlson describes the arrogant impoverished Reb Shmuel-Khayim as a kabtsn in zibn poles, literally “a stingy begger of seven laps” (like the lap on a dress or traditional Eastern European men’s clothing, in the obsolete sense of the bottom hanging part of a garment), as if he was wearing seven layers of rags. Robbins' version translates it simply as “poorer than poor.” The drawings by Elizabeth Watasin make up for the lack of imagery in the words and capture the miserly cheap-skate connotation of the phrase, showing Shmuel-Khayim, in a Western jacket rather than Eastern clothing, scowling and haughty with patches on his knee and elbows and the seat of his pants, frayed cuffs on his pant-legs and toes poking out of his right shoe.

 

Although Perlson describes Duboy as “far-off from new, free breezes -- truly a village out of the Middle Ages...” the stories show how modernity touched that village, as travellers and new teachers made their way there; while other stories depict emigrants from Duboy in America, moving into the world of Yiddish North American intellectuals, living in tenements as they published their writing and

debated profound issues. Robbins’ book is a boisterous modern look at moments and people from both those lost worlds.

 

A Minyen Yidn Un Andere Zakhn is published by Bedside Press.

 

[1]  Max B Perlson, A minyen yidn un andere zakhn, Shulsinger Bros Linotyping and

Publishing Co, Brooklyn, 1938. A digital copy of the book can be found at archive.org and

yiddishbookcenter.org, Stephen Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library No 01943 (nybc201493),

although their copy is missing page 40 as well as the original cover.

[2] Chaim Kusnetz, “Why I Left the Old Country and What I Have Accomplished in America”, in Jocelyn Cohen and Daniel Soyer, eds, My Future is in America: Autobiographies of Eastern

European Jewish Immigrants, NYU Press, 2008, p 233.

 

 

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