14 August 2010

Burn and Rave at Close of Day

4 Elul 5770

I once had a Christmas in Wales, invited there by friends in the winter of 1996.  We were shown extraordinary warmth and hospitality (served kiddush wine and sherry for afternoon tea) and experienced celebrations in the midst of an extended family that was truly memorable.  A lot of food, drink, great stories, and laughter.  And among the younger members of the family, a fascinating commitment to learning Welsh--long abandoned by the older generation but undergoing a revival by the young, in a way not too dissimilar from the hipster Jewish revival of fascinations with Yiddish and Hebrew--a desire to undo, as it were, the assimilationist tendencies of an older generation.

We spent the week driving around Wales, including a day in Laugharne, at Dylan Thomas' grave.  The weather warmed briefly on that December afternoon and we sat in the graveyard in a kind of reverie, talking.  After, below the cemetery, we had a late afternoon lunch in a pub, raised a glass to the poet, and headed off to Tenby on the coast for New Year's eve.
 So happy was I on Thursday morning when I came across the grave of Hananiah Caiserman, a union organizer who also helped start the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society and the Jewish Public Library of Montreal.  Romanian-born, H.M. Caiserman organized in Montreal's sweatshops.  In 1916 he ran for a city council seat, representing the Poale Zion party, advocating "an eight-hour workday, the abolition of child labour, equality of rights for all national groups, and the use of Yiddish in city regulations.  He lost soundly, however, even losing his election deposit." (from Danny Kucharsky's Sacred Ground on de la Savane:  Montreal's Baron de Hirsch Cemetery.)

He helped organize the first session of the Canadian Jewish Congress, made aliyah in 1921 but was back in Canada two years later.  He ran the Congress until it was taken over by Samuel Bronfman in 1939.  When he died he was eulogized by then President Samuel Bronfman, who said, "every person found in Caiserman the friendy ear and the helping hand of a kinsman."

Not a bad way to be remembered.

What fascinated me about coming across Caiserman's grave was that his brief biographical sketch in Kucharsky's book mentioned his political, social and literary causes but with the literary in particularly, only his devotion to Yiddish is mentioned--certainly nothing of his apparent love for the poet of Laugharne.  Yet, he seems to have decreed before dying that his stone forever be carved with Thomas' eternal words.

What does it mean?  It means the official ways in which we are remembered tell one story while our graves often allow future generations to inscribe new meanings, new insights.  It means that our Jewish stories are often intertwined with other stories, making a more complex picture than any one telling can capture. 

Or maybe, I'll leave it to Reb Rodney to bring it home (and not just because this classic film was made in Madison.)


DP Greenberg said...

Don't forget Hot Lips Houlihan. And don't call me "hipster."

Kathe Roth said...

Hello. My name is Kathe Roth and I'm the granddaughter of H.M. and Sarah Caiserman. I have just been researching H.M. and came across this blog page during a Google search. I just wanted to clarify something about the headstone with the Thomas poem. The headstone was installed upon the death of Sarah Caiserman, some 17 years after H.M.'s death. His daughter Ghitta's husband, Max W. Roth, designed the headstone. Thomas was among Sarah's favourite poets.