Inside Sonia's suitcase

So, as my grandmother would ask, what was in the suitcase, already? Some wonderful original songs, including four collaborations with Henekh Kon, the composer who wrote the score for the original cinematic version of the The Dybbuk; several articles about one of Sonia's uncles, a kabbalah scholar and mystic who traveled around the world searching for the lost tribes (and reportedly found one in India!); a scratchy 78 RPM recording of Sonia passionately reading one of her poems; family photos of men with grey beards and women with dark braids; two actual long dark braids (but no beards); scribbled commentaries on various works of Yiddish literature; recipes, including several utilizing the hooves of cows; a few intriguing folk remedies; and many hundreds of poems about every aspect of her life.

“There were nostalgic poems about her father blessing the candles on Friday night, poems about her grandmother, poems about work and marriage,” said Sara. And she noticed a few more things inside a leather purse: “There was a note reminding her how wonderful it is to be alive, and a list of don’ts: like don’t be blunt, afraid, arrogant, and so on. And then there’s this part where, for a couple of pages, she alternates between writing a prayer and a ‘chuckle.’”

What Sara learned most of all from the project is that when you study cultural figures, famous or relatively unknown, you’ve got to also know the context of their lives. “(Her personal side) is a side of her that we don’t really see in the poetry. But I guess what I found is that we can’t really understand one part of Sonia without understanding the other parts. Like, the things she writes about being sad are a lot easier to understand once we’ve learned that she had an unhappy marriage and difficult children, and that she was sick, and that a lot of her family died in the Holocaust.”

For my part, the most special thing of all was watching the magic trans-generational bonding that happened when Sara Israel, a young Yiddish student, took the time to open her suitcase and look inside.

December 10, 2009