After seeing the performance of “Fiddler on the Roof” in Yiddish, it is a long cab ride home to 19th Street on Manhattan. As the cab bumps along, Leonard suddenly breaks through the rattling din, “When my mother was 90 years-old, she came up with this story,” Leonard begins, “she had never talked about it before.” He settles himself back in his seat, ready now to let the story take over.
“This is the story,” he begins, “the word got around that the Cossacks were coming. They actually came and were threatening to make all the Jews leave. My mother was a young girl then, 14 years old or something. She went to the commander of the Cossacks and begged him to let her people stay there.” Leonard interrupts himself, and with emphasis repeats, “This is the story.” He resumes, “The commander was so impressed with her courage that he agreed, and they stayed…and they weren’t harmed.” Leonard pauses for a moment and shifts his perspective from storyteller to audience, “We, in the younger generation, found this very dubious…” he smiled before continuing “…because among other things, my mother was, what the Germans call, a ‘Hochstappler,’ you know what that is?” Noting some hesitation, he fills in quickly, “a braggard.” Leonard continues, “We found it dubious because if it were true, then she would have told the story much earlier.” That he twice repeats “This is the story,” makes sense now. Leonard is swearing off any responsibility for the veracity of his mother’s account.
After his family fled Germany in 1938, Leonard mostly grew up in Chicago and has lived a life that is worlds apart from his mother’s Shtetl upbringing. As children, he and his siblings grew used to treating their mother’s stories with healthy skepticism.
Yet now, Leonard is just a few years away from the age his mother had been when she first told the story. Now, he is willing to entertain alternatives to the origin of the story. “Maybe it was someone else who went to the commander. Or maybe…” Leonard shrugs his shoulders, indicating that he cannot find evidence to the contrary, “maybe she actually did it.”
The bumping from the cab takes over again before Leonard starts on a new tack, “My mother had a persona that she would talk about.” Again, Leonard interjects his reservation, “I don’t know how much of this is real—my sister passed this along. She was something of an accomplice to my mother.” Leonard continues, “Apparently my mother spent some time in Vienna. She had an office job. She had a lover from Vienna who was drafted during the First World War. She used to play chess by correspondence—you know sending letters with your chess moves…” Here Leonard lifts one finger and proclaims, “This I know is true. She taught me how to play chess. She was very good.” Leonard continues briefly, “And then she played the mandolin,” another reservation, “I don’t know if this is true.” Leonard is silent again for a few moments before concluding, “How she got to Vienna? I don’t know.”
Earlier in life, there would be a tone of resentment when Leonard described his mother’s efforts to guide—or more accurately—restrict his choices in life. Predictably, this was one among many factors that made Leonard fiercely independent and driven to succeed on his selected path.
But now Leonard speaks with a conciliatory tone, more willing to recognize that his mother possessed a strength and determination that is like his own. While Leonard’s drive had lifted him from the Jewish neighborhoods of Chicago to the heights of academic success, his mother’s drive had carried her from the Polish Shtetl, to Vienna (perhaps), to Germany, and finally in 1938, to Chicago. Given these efforts on behalf of her family, perhaps it isn’t so crazy to believe that she had, in fact, boldly persuaded the Cossacks to leave her people alone. Was it age that had brought about Leonard’s rapprochement with his mother? More than likely. But then too, it was surely “Fiddler on the Roof” – in Yiddish.