We told my mother we wanted to do something special for her 90th birthday. She insisted we do nothing at all. She always discouraged us from making a bother over her. After months of pressure, though, she consented to an Oneg Shabbat, or Sabbath celebration, in her honor, at the apartment building for senior citizens where she lived. Relatives and friends came to Revere, a town on the coast near Boston, from Connecticut, Maine, and upstate New York. Dozens of her neighbors attended.
When we were planning the event and told her that people would be asked to speak, there was a particular story she asked me to tell, and it was this:
Picture a restaurant and tavern in a seaport on the west coast of Africa. It’s Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. The restaurant—small, just eight tables—with its bar, is exactly like something from a movie about the tropics. The bartender, Carla, a woman of mystery who never says exactly which European country she came from—or why—could be played by Yvonne DeCarlo. The customers are from places like Vladivostok, Oslo, Beirut.
I’m there because I’m in the Peace Corps. It’s 1964 and I’m having dinner with a friend. A plump, pleasant woman with a middle-European accent—she and her husband own the restaurant—comes over to our table and asks if I recognize the music on the p.a. system. I listen closely and to my great surprise, not only do I recognize the music, but it’s an orchestral version of “Oyfn Pripitchik.”
This never happens in old Hollywood movies.
I tell the owner, “Yes—it’s something my mother sang to me.” With a special smile—and yes, a twinkle in her eyes—the owner says, “I thought so.”
In case your mother didn’t sing it to you, “Oyfn Pripitchik” is about a teacher showing the letters of the Hebrew alphabet to little children. It’s probably the best-known Yiddish folk song, although it may not in fact be a folk song. The composer who popularized it in the 1800s either wrote the song himself or adapted it from a folk song he had heard.
I got to know the restaurant owner well. Everyone called her Mama Simonovich. She somehow survived World War Two in or around Vienna, along with her children. Her second husband—Papa Simonovich—had grown up in the court of the last Tsar of Russia. As a boy he sat on the knee of the Mad Monk himself—Rasputin—or Raspooteen as Papa Simonovich pronounced it.
According to Papa Simonovich, Rasputin intervened with the Tsar to help the Jewish population at the time of the pogroms, which was news to me. Papa’s father published a book about Rasputin, in French, expounding the theory. I never read it, although Papa showed me a copy, printed on paper that had yellowed with age and was beginning to crumble, since equatorial humidity is ruinous to books. According to published histories, an Aaron Simonovich was either Rasputin’s personal secretary or a shadier figure at the Imperial court.
They left St. Petersburg because of the Revolution. After many travels and adventures—Papa had another wife and a daughter in France—he ended up in an internment camp during World War Two. Freed by the British army, he joined it, and after the war he walked across the Sahara Desert to Liberia, where naturally he went into the restaurant business.
I believed every word of the stories they told in that smaller version of Rick’s Café, far down the coast from Casablanca.
But now, 40 years later, I asked myself why my mother wanted me to tell this story. And this is what I decided:
The story demonstrated her own place in a vast network of mothers. They lived in every part of the world—from Poland and the Ukraine; to the towns in Massachusetts where my mother was born, raised her family, ran a business, and died a few years ago; to Vienna—even to a small, humid seaport on the African coast.
And whatever else happens in this world, good or bad—where we travel, how we live, whatever new bonds we form—all the mothers everywhere sing these songs to us—and keep us together.
Because we remember.