91-Year-Old Yiddish Rock Star
A visit with Arkady Gendler, the last link to the living roots of Yiddish culture, on the eve of a new album
Demobilized in Moscow at the end of the war and lacking almost any formal education, he threw every ounce of his energy into the work at a night trade-school and completed the five years of course work he needed to get his high-school diploma within a single year. Afterward, he studied chemistry at university in Moscow and went to work as a trainee chemist in plastic polymers, then a cutting-edge field. During his first weeks at work a demonstration of a mixture of dangerous and costly materials by one of his superiors went haywire. From the back of the class, the novice Gendler gently hinted to the head scientist to add more silver, advice she ignored because of arrogance and potential expense. After the inevitable explosion, the head of the plant heard about what had happened—that a trainee had correctly instructed his foolish instructor—and called Gendler into his office for a chat. Would the young man like a temporary position without housing at the plant in Moscow, the chief inquired, or a full-time post at a plant in the provinces where he would be provided with housing? Then living unhappily on a couch in the Moscow University dorms, Gendler chose the apartment in Zaporozhe, a decision he still regrets to this day. Zaporozhye became his home, and he learned “to love it by necessity.”
With the outbreak of Perestroika, which foreshadowed the swift collapse of communism of and Soviet empire, Gendler left the field of industrial chemistry and went to work in a Jewish school as a teacher of his beloved Yiddish. He was also able to sing Yiddish songs more openly. As the legend of the amateur Yiddish singer began to spread, he was invited to participate in Klezmer festivals and workshops in San Francisco and Copenhagen and Paris and Moscow. After the parting of the iron curtain, he emerged as the authentic missing archeological link to the living roots of Yiddish culture. Utterly bereft of ambition, he never recorded a CD until after his 80th birthday and did not begin composing his own material until a few years afterward. (The problem with many of the festivals, he told me, was that they were playing the same music over and over, so he began to write his own.)
Gendler is a living Alexandrine Library of Yiddish folklore, tradition, and song, much of it uniquely held by him. He was friends with the Yiddish poet Itzik Manger and his family and was thus in the room when the bard’s songs were first sung. The greatest of his many Last-of-the-Mohicans moments came when he revealed a hereto-unknown stanza of the Russian-Yiddish classic “Tumbalalaika”—the Yiddish revival equivalent of discovering an unknown 38th Shakespeare play in the attic. His memory and mental faculties are remarkable; when I told him I had seen him sing at the Krakow Jewish festival four years ago, he remembered his repertoire exactly, as well as the name of every musician he jammed with that night. He still sends occasional learned letters to the Yiddish Forward (he holds the only subscription in the province and worries about what to do with his back issues after he is gone) to authenticate some previously unknown melody or piece, invariably unearthing lyrics or factoids unknown to anyone else. He is also a fountain of anecdotes and jokes. “What else do you want to know?” he asked. “Have you sat in a banya with Khrushchev?” I inquired. “No, I have not,” was the riposte. “But I do have a banya anecdote for you, if your lady pardons my taking the liberty of assuming that she knows that babies are not delivered by storks?” Cleared to proceed by her amused smile, he told the one dealing with a Russian Jew’s inglorious quest for integration in a preternaturally anti-Semitic society: “Rabinovich is hanging out in the banya with the other Jewish guys. One of them says to him, ‘Rabinovich! Who do you think you are fooling? Either put on some underwear or take off the cross!’ ”
His humor and charm are also the source of his sexiness: Despite the fact that he is a chaste and courteous 91-year-old man, attractive young women perpetually shower him with attention. Typologically he is a cavalier rather than a seducer, and his courtly gallantries are absolutely authentic. His nurse drapes herself over his arm, and waitresses in restaurants fuss over him. At a Purimshpiel in Paris that I attended a week before embarking on the pilgrimage to Gendler’s home in Ukraine, I met a beauteous dark haired Ukrainian-Israeli studying in a cantorial program in Berlin. When she found out that I was to be traveling shortly to meet Gendler, she informed me with a panoramic smile that he was her great unrequited love and excitedly scribbled out a love letter for me to deliver in both Russian and Hebrew on the back of an envelope. Another comely friend, a Czech art historian in her early thirties to whom I showed Gendler’s picture, cooed that he was “aesthetically perfect.” Dolgin referred to him as a “lady killer.”
“Everyone tells me to write a memoir,” Gendler told me. “I keep telling them I don’t need to because I have no guilt and nothing to qualify to my descendants.” He does have plans, however, to write his magnum opus on the history of Yiddish sometime in the future, when it is “ripe.” His son, also a chemist, now living in Moscow, implores him continuously to move there to be closer to him. The son called him twice during the evening in a display of filial piety. Throughout the evening, in fact, Gendler was barraged by phone calls from his numerous friends. After every conversation he would put down the receiver to tell us the improbable story of one of his colorful friends. “That was Idea Markovna. We co-teach the Yiddish club together. She and her husband were bomber pilots during the war when the high command offered to put them into the same cockpit so that they could serve together. ‘Under no circumstances,’ she responded—in case they were shot down the children would be orphans!” At about 10 p.m. we left him with a promise to call from the hotel room to confirm our safety.
The next morning Shveld, Gendler’s driver, and Gendler arrived to pick us up at our hotel at 9:30 and take us to the Hessed. Gendler has given up full-time teaching but still leads the Hessed club here a few times a week. After Shveld showed us around the building, Gendler gave an impromptu concert for the old pensioners hanging around. He does not like to feel dependent and frowned when offered a hand out of the car or when I insisted on paying for our lunch.
Why is he still living in such a place? He can’t rule out moving to Moscow to be closer to his son. There is still time, he is not yet ripe. With one grandfather living to the age of 108, one suspects that in his body as well his indomitable spirit Gendler is still young. I asked him that, too. “Why didn’t you ever emigrate to Germany or maybe Israel?” He fixed me with his clever eyes for a moment. “Who needs Yiddish in Israel?” he asked me, which is of course true.
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