On April 15, 1991, my family came to the United States as refugees from the Soviet Union, which was then teetering on the verge of collapse. I was eight going on nine, and after my initial excitement (candy bars! supermarkets!) wore off, I was struck by panic. The prospect of learning English from scratch paralyzed me. We settled in what was — and still is — the de facto Russian neighborhood of Los Angeles, and I was enrolled in a public school that was struggling to accommodate a growing population of displaced Soviet children. The first months were difficult, to say the least, but with the help of my dedicated if somewhat bewildered teachers, I made a go of it. My third grade teacher wisely paired each new student with a classroom buddy: another émigré who had arrived a bit earlier and could serve as a translator. It was the half-blind leading the blind, but the system worked. And my classroom buddy, Igor, is one of my very best friends to this day.
I could say a lot more about my experience, but the topic of this post is a book, a very funny book, to which I returned last week, on a whim. I first discovered it two decades ago, in a rusty rotating rack at the back of my tenth grade English classroom. The book is titled The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N (1937), and it recounts the linguistic misadventures of the titular hero, a hopeless but indomitable student of English at the American Night Preparatory School for Adults, and the headaches these misadventures give his equally indomitable teacher, Mr. Parkhill. Instead of “headaches,” I should have probably said “tsuris.” For Mr. Kaplan is a Yiddish speaker. How do we know? Clues abound. Here, for instance, is his description of his favorite “hobo” (he means “hobby”):
[I]n hiking is all enjoymint fromm soch Netcher. Dat’s vy I’m makink a hobby fromm hiking. Ladies an’ gantleman, have you one an’ all, or even saparate, falt in de soul de trees, de boids, de gress, de bloomers — all de scinnery?
Bloomers? But then Mr. Parkhill recalls that “Blumen meant ‘flowers’ in Mr. Kaplan’s native language.”
Mr. Kaplan’s verbal pratfalls are easy pickings for comedy, but what makes the book a masterpiece is the dignity with which its author, Leonard Q. Ross, invests his hero. Here is how Kaplan ends his “hobo” speech:
As Mr. Kaplan uttered his own name, as if he were referring to some celebrity known to them all, Mr. Parkhill, by some visual conditioned re-flex, saw the name. He saw it just as Mr. Kaplan always wrote it. It seemed impossible, fantastic, yet Mr. Kaplan had pronounced his name in red and blue and green: H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N.
There is such nobility in this struggling immigrant, such winning pride! I grew up in a neighborhood of Kaplans, and I am glad to see them dignified even as they are being ribbed. And Kaplan’s creator, Leonard Q. Ross, knew his subject inside out. Ross’s real name was Leo Rosten (1908-1997), and he himself was an immigrant from the former Russian Empire, who grew up speaking both Yiddish and English. He is also the author of another of my favorite books, The Joys of Yiddish (1968).
I feel close both to the wonderfully accomplished Rosten and to the brilliantly bumbling Kaplan. They remind me that my own immigrant childhood is a gift, not a hindrance — and that my adopted country can, when it tries, become a warm and welcoming home to those huddled masses yearning for a better life. Just some thoughts that occurred to me on the 4th of July, and that I’m posting on my birthday, as I mark my 27th year in America.