Monday, February 17, 2014

Parnossos: Money, Yiddish, Inspiration


   A friend from St. Petersburg asked for a pun about money. I obliged: "On Parnassus without the parnos" (На Парнасе без парноса).  In Russian especially, the Yiddish parnos  and Parnassus produce an awkward rhyme, an alliterative disjuncture typical of the relationship between artistic creativity and profit. There is even a whiff of "filthy lucre" in this combination, with parnos (stress on the second syllable) calling to mind the Russian понос, or diarrhea.

   I did not know Yiddish growing up. I knew of it, as my father, who grew in the South-West speaking Yiddish, used it when he did not want me or my sister understand what he and mother were talking about. My mother, originally from Samara and born to a more assimilated family, understood him but responded in Russian (her Yiddish was visibly labored). Be that as it may, for the first time I remember hearing the Yiddish word for money when I turned thirteen or fourteen, and we moved to Maryana roshcha (Mary's Grove), a neighborhood in Moscow that, I was soon to learn, had been a home to a large and motley Jewish community, one not unlike Isaac Babel's Moldavanka, the home of his fabulous Jewish gangster Benya Krik.

   Until then the four of us lived in a single room in a communal apartment but in the very center of Moscow, in the haute–bourgeois (Soviet style) district of the Maroseika Street. Our home was a stone's throw from the enigmatic Kremlin, the scary Lubyanka, and -- the enchanting Chistye prudy Boulevard, with stylish tram, skating rink and boats in the summer. Next to it was the movie theater with a Ionic colonnade called the Coliseum. Even the synagogue (Moscow's central) had Ionic columns! Yiddish, to put it mildy, wasn't quite come il fault in this neighborhood. What a difference a fifteen-minute tram ride made! The opposite spirit reined in the other hood, which housed the old wooden Hassidic synagogue, unprepossessing on ordinary days but transformed into a tableau out of  Chagal every Friday. That was when I saw old-world Jewish men, hatted and bowed by the weight of their holy books, trudge slowly to the temple for their Sabbath prayer (the synagogue burned down in 1993). More, remarkable, even the Russian street thugs in Maryina roshcha had a smattering of Yiddish. If you crossed them, they'd threaten you with a kick in the beitsem, not the balls. It was all intoxicating.

   Soon after we moved, I fell in with a couple of Jewish kids who lived in old wooden houses across the street from my new apartment building. How their parents earned a living remained a mystery to me but I never saw the adults go to work. My Yiddish vocabulary was growing and before long, one of their children enriched my Yiddish with parnos. Except that he pronounced it as parnus, with a preferred usage sporting the Russian ending for plural: parnusy (parnoosė). 

   One lazy afternoon, a bell rang. It was one of my new friends from the hood asking if I had any parnusy. He needed five rubles for the "girl he had waiting in his apartment," and if I had a fiver, I could have her, too. I do not recall whether or not I had such a sum (it was a multiple of my allowance) but I remember turning crimson, ears burning, and wishing the earth would open and swallow me up. Looking back, I am ready to believe in the original sin, the root of all shame and ambivalence. Just think of Adam. If he felt ashamed after he was tempted, surely, he would not have yielded to Satan's enticements. Well, at least, not right away.

   Decades later, clean-cut Yiddishists corrected my parnus -- this time on the American academic Parnassus -- to parnos.

  I now stand corrected -- on Parnossos.



Maroseika in the 1930s but thats how I remember it
in the 1950s and 1960s.







Chistye prudy Boulevard exactly as I remember it
from my childhood

Only 15 minutes away by tram from Chistye prudy Boulevard where I grew up,
Maryina roshcha synagogue and its environs seemed to hail from another era.

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