Monday, February 17, 2014

Parnossos: Money, Yiddish, Inspiration, and Original Sin

Maroseika Street, 1960s (?), then Chernyshevsky street.

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 to understand what he and mother were talking about. My mother, originally from Samara and born to a more cosmopolitan family, understood his Yiddish but responded in Russian (her Yiddish appeared labored). Be that as it may, the first time I remember hearing the Yiddish word for money was when I turned fourteen or fifteen, and we moved from the center of Moscow to Maryina roshcha (Mary's Grove, Марьина роща). By happenstance, we landed in a neighborhood that, I was soon to learn, had been a home to a large and motley Jewish community, one not unlike the Moldavanka from Isaac Babel's Odessa Stories, the home of his fabulous Jewish gangster Benya Krik.
Maryina roshcha during the reconstruction in the early 1960s
Until then the four of us lived in a single room in a communal apartment with seven other families but in a nice Art Nouveau building at the very center of Moscow, the haute–bourgeois (in a much diminished, Soviet style) district of the Maroseika Street, in those days bearing the name of Chernyshevsky, the author of Lenin's favorite novel What Is to Be Done. Our home was a stone's throw from the Red Square and high-walled Kremlin where, shrouded in mystery, Stalin worked for us day and night; we were even closer to the scary Lubyanka, the headquarters of the KGB (MVD then); we took walks in the nearby enchanting Chistye prudy Boulevard (Clear Ponds Park), with a stylish tram running alongside its beautiful wrought-iron railing, a skating rink, and little skiffs for hire in the summer. 
Chistye prudy Boulevard exactly as I remember it
from my childhood

On the other side of Chistye prudy was an old movie theater with a — typical of an early 20th century Nickelodeon — Ionic colonnade, called The Coliseum. 

Movie Theater Kolizei (Coliseum)
Even the synagogue (Moscow's central), built as a basilica, had Ionic columns! In this sort of neighborhood, Yiddish, to put it mildly, wasn't quite come il fault. 

Moscow's main synagogue (late 19th century)

By tram, Maryina Roshcha was just a fifteen-minute ride. But what a difference a fifteen-minute tram ride made! The opposite spirit reigned in the other hood, which housed the old wooden Hassidic synagogue, unprepossessing on ordinary days but transformed into a tableau out of Chagall 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 and has been replaced by a sprauling Jewish Cultural Center).

The Maryina Roshcha synagogue in 1960 (?)
What was even more remarkable about Maryina roshcha, even Russian street thugs — khuligany — had a smattering of Yiddish. If you crossed any one of them, he would be as likely to threaten you with a kick in the "beitsem," as a kick in the balls. And then, there were Jewish hooligans, too, and they were the ones who were most feared. Somehow this all blended with the Six-Day War, Jews, Israel, violence. For a fifteen-year-old used to downplay his Jewish origins, albeit without much success, this was 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 in their families go to work. But they liked me: I was an intelligentny boy, and they welcomed my good influence on their shady offspring whom I, needless to say, embraced and was ready to imitate. My Yiddish vocabulary grew and before long, one of their children enriched it with the word 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 asking if I had any parnusy. He needed five rubles for the "girl he had waiting in his apartment," and if I had another fiver, he added, I could have her, too. I do not recall whether or not I had such a sum (it was probably above my allowance). What I remember is turning crimson, my ears burning, and wishing that the earth would open up and swallow me alive. 

Looking back on this episode, I am ready to believe in the original sin, the root of all shame and ambivalence. Just think of Adam. Had he felt ashamed while being tempted, surely, shame would have made it possible for him to resist  Eve's enticements. He would have abstained from sex, Satan be damned! In the garden of Eden of my boyhood, this first temptation did not work. 

Decades later, a clean-cut Yiddishist corrected my parnusy — this time on the American academic Parnassus — to parnos.

  I now stand corrected  and cannot resist the pun — on Parnossos.

Berkeley, 17 February 2014

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