I believe in eydlkayt. A German would spell the word Edelkeit — but everyone knows that comparing German to Yiddish is like comparing a Lutheran chorale to Abe Lebedeff’s Rumenye. One’s got a little more swing.
Eydlkayt. That’s how it’s spelled in Leo Rosten’s famous 1968 lexicon, which is where I learned it, having no zayde of my own.
Rosten translates the word as “sweetness of character” — giving the example of a humble butcher in his old neighborhood in Chicago who was “revered by one and all.”
Of course, the Germanic root “edel” denotes nobility. If this were French, we’d be talking about noblesse.
Except the Yiddish word — if Rosten’s example of the butcher is reliable — implies a nobility found in odd and awkward places; the nobility of an ugly duckling or a lily in a swamp.
Eydlkayt seems such a Jewish concept. I see traces of it in Christian places, too.
The word came to mind this past week in the cramped office of a professor at the Jagiellonian University, which is a 14th-century institution here in Krakow. (She jokes, “This university is medieval… and its bathrooms are, too!”)
Sitting around a scuffed library table were two or three generations of an extended Jewish family from Florida along with their guides, one American-Jewish and one Polish. I had been brought in, along with a few others, by the professor, a friend of the guide, as an illustration of a “local person” for this family.
It’s never fun to talk to people who’ve just spent a day at Auschwitz. It requires a high tolerance for ambiguity, since what causes visitors pain is often not the horror of the murders of 70 years ago, but the fact that ordinary life — exuberant, vulgar, banal — rolls on right beside the moldering camps. It’s true: to me and a lot of people who live here, Płaszów is a bus stop. Joan Rivers expressed it: “I lost my entire family at Auschwitz. I was standing in the gift shop for hours.”
I try to spend most of these encounters just listening.
In a too-tight, steam-heated room full of sad and tired people, sweetness seems out of place. But an adverse environment is the natural habitat of eydlkayt.
There was one person in the room who showed eydlkayt that evening. And it was, of course, totally unexpected.
For almost an hour, the family worked itself into a froth over contemporary lessons that can be drawn from the Holocaust (I know you’ve heard this conversation before). An expansive older man thought that Auschwitz meant America should bar Syrian refugees. An owlish aunt thought that Roosevelt’s failure to bomb the train line from Budapest taught that the West should act as a Big Bombing Nanny, dropping payloads on scoundrels around the globe. A former flower child evoked Marlo Thomas in her calls for a foreign policy modeled on that mountaintop sing-in about Coke.
It was, to use a word that occurs both in Polish and Israeli Hebrew, a balagan — not the bridge-building conversation the guide had in mind.
And then, in that cousin-close room, a window opened. With a click, a light came on. A young member of the Florida clan, a mild ophthalmologist who had been silent all night, spoke up. In just a few words, the man brought gentleness and peacefulness and moral clarity that dispelled the sweaty cloud. He shut up again after that, but left the room in an altered state. It wasn’t what he said, but how he said it.
We had been visited by eydlkayt.
Somehow I connect this with what I read about certain ideas of the ARI Z”L (Yitzhak Ben Sh’lomo Luria Ashkenazi) — his notion of the tikkim, tiny sparks of the divine light that are imprisoned in husks called klippot. I like the idea of trapped light that can be released by the noble actions of God’s people. It reminds me, too, of the Baal Shem Tov, son of this region, Galicia, who (so I am told) saw prayer as a potent act that frees us from the mundane and brings us into a divine realm. A little prayer and a little goodness can hasten the coming of the Messiah. That sounds just right.
If I may be permitted to suggest it, these models are expressions of an intuition that every monk has felt — that this tumbledown world will never satisfy, but an opalescent majesty hides just below the dirty surface. It’s an insight that pushes some men into the cloister.
Eydlkayt. For a Christian, this nobility of the everyday is expressed by the Eight Beatitudes. I’m talking about a series of eight blessings that Jesus pronounced in his Sermon on the Mount on the banks of Lake Kinneret. They’re recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. They are, maybe, a Christian complement to the commandments given by God to Moses: an Octologue coda to the Decalogue of Sinai: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, Blessed are those who mourn, Blessed are the meek, Blessed are the pure in heart…,” they say.
If that’s not the gentle butcher from the West Side of Chicago, what is?
And in Krakow, in November, it’s good to know beatitude is just that near.