Carol Green Ungar

A Cautionary Tale from Yiddishuania

“When I Grow Up,” is the title of Ken Krimstein’s most recent graphic memoir. The story behind the book is worthy of a book or perhaps a film. Back in 1939 the YIVO, the Yiddish cultural organization ran a memoir writing contest for teenagers with the winners to be announced on Sept 1.1939. Of course, that didn’t work out–on that day everyone was otherwise engaged with the all-encompassing task of staying alive. Most of the young essayists didn’t make it through the war but their words did. Along with other YIVO archival materials, the contest entries were hidden in a nearby church. Yes, documents were even stuffed into the organ pipes. I wonder what happened on Sundays?

Not long ago the essays were discovered and  Krimstein has them into a graphic memoir ‘ The title drips with irony because of course most of these young people never did grow up.

In a way, this is a wonderful book. Krimstein is a gifted storyteller and artist with a sharp sense of humor. Through their stories, one gets to know these “Yiddish” teenagers.  But it’s far more than a history book. When I Grow Up is a cautionary tale about what can happen when Judaism isn’t transmitted with love. From reading these tales it seems that back in the Yiddishuania, the name Krimstein uses for the Yiddish speaking communities of Lithuania and Poland love was in shorter supply than potatoes. Sadly, the  Judaism these youngsters encountered was harsh, judgmental, and suffocating and that forms a motif for many of their essays..

In one, a young woman recalls being chased from the synagogue following her attempt to recite the Kaddish for her newly deceased mother. What happened to sensitivity? No wonder she was turned off.

Another young woman recalls her deeply religious grandfather telling her that if  she violated the commandments “G-d would spank her with iron rods.”OF course, grandpa’s remarks left her traumatized and also turned off.

Another chapter is about a lovesick young man who attempted to explore Judaism joining a yeshiva and dropping out unable to adjust to the ascetic and joyless life.  He too was turned off.

Not long after they penned these essays all of these people went to their early deaths because they were Jews. What makes this even sadder is that they  benefit from their Judaism–it didnt bring them strength or faith or joy

I wish I could say that these stories are no longer relevant but that isn’t true. Far too many young people are running away from a rigid and joyless iteration of our tradition and it’s so sad.

Judaism has so much wisdom to offer if it’s presented correctly.  Our religion offers personal strength, community, and connection but only when it’s transmitted with love, lots of it. As our sages observed so many centuries ago, one who gives over the Torah needs to be an angel. If he or she is not–well… In a world that offers many other choices, we all know far too well what can happen. Let the memory of these long gone Jewish teenagers remind us to make our Torah sweet.

About the Author
Carol Ungar is a prize-winning author who writes from the Judean Hills.
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