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  • Writer's pictureCorbin Allardice

My Lexicon - Shloyme Gilbert

Shloyme Gilbert

Born 1885 in Radzymin, near Warsaw. Spent his entire life in Warsaw or Otwock. 1943--tragic news.

You don’t see him and you don’t hear from him. Everyone is at the great market, with books, with kiosks, with whole stores. He wanders around, as if all he ever does is wandering. From time to time, his sharp-pointed, pale and angry nose appears, disappears again. He’s laughing at the whole market scene. He lives in Otwock, never in Warsaw, to hell with Warsaw, he loves to pose like a prophet and start out laughing like a madman.

One must not judge a writer, let alone convict them, before their seventy years are up, and so I will not speak about the Shloyme Gilbert who should have been, only about the one who was. And he should have been a productive, naturalist novelist, but he wrote very little. In total, two novels.

Gilbert prayed and whether or not he had a reason for this, it is important, sufficient, that he prayed like any ordinary Jew prays, although between Mincha (afternoon prayer) and Maariv (evening prayer) he oftens pops over to a friend, or to the Writer’s Association, which he hates like swine, and mocks the whole affair of prayer and piety (frumkayt) and all the paraphernalia, mocks it all the same. After he’s had his laugh, he runs back out. Ten horses couldn’t restrain him. He runs back to pray Maariv with the most pious of intentions and he prays enraptured, no matter what, he prays (nisht abi gedavnt).

Shmul Lehman, the folk song collector, once took it upon himself to find the living author of a folk song, for he reasoned, quite correctly, that everything save for the Torah itself (toyres moyshe) must be written by a flesh-and-blood human (ben odem). And eventually he found someone. It seems to me that had Lehman been sent to a 17th century Jewish ghetto in Poland to find the author of authentic Yiddish ghost stories--he would, eventually, have found Shloyme Gilbert. He would have found a Jew with pointed eyes, half sly, half mad laughter, a Jew with a white fox fur collar (lis)* up to his ears, with a cap (kapelyush) perched on the crown of his head, with loose, neglected garb sitting behind the oven, surrounded by a minyan of street urchins (vayse khevre), they believe in him, he is one of them. He would discover how Shloyme Gilbert tells, no, not tells, but composes a story about demons and wizards, a story in which he at once does and does not believe and the truth of which you will never glean from his sly eyes.

And suddenly this Shloyme Gilbert would leap up and start cursing the whole East like a sailor...And a shudder would run through everyone there, because he would say his curses with such persuasion, it would seem as if they had already come true.

Two thin novels--that is all that Shloyme Gilbert left us to look back on after decades and decades of writing, of recognition. He is one of the lucky few who wrote with the blessing (smikhe) of Rabbi Yitskhok Leybush (Peretz), of blessed memory זצ”ל, himself. (I follow Gilbert’s own style in writing with such chutzpah.) Why? Perhaps bitter life. His endless bachelorhood, first because of poverty and later because of his mystical marriage to a young woman barely a year before she died from tuberculosis and then he was a widower with a bit of luster and a sickly child. Who can ever know why a true writer writes and who can ever know why they fall silent. It happens because of an inner commandment of honesty.

Gilbert’s shortest manuscript consists of hundreds of pages, a page a word, a page a word. This is not terribly new or original in the world of writers. I myself know a dozen such writers--a page a word, a page a word. And as far as I am concerned, they have nothing in common save for their sparsity of script. The density of their talents is very varied indeed.

Like a squall blowing across the sea, the door bursts open--Gilbert!

“Ravitch, listen up, I’m writing something that’ll cover you all like a wet rag, to hell with youse! (He spoke a coarse Polish dialect of Yiddish (poylishn folks-dialekt.))

As if appropriate for such news, however strange the delivery, I stand up politely (gesheftik) before my galewind guest and extend my hand. In the meantime, Gilbert’s interests have already moved elsewhere and he has already recrossed the threshold and, before slamming shut the door, he manages, in the style of the storytellers of yore, to say:

“May all your bare backs be beaten with burning rods, you’re worth hell and not a penny more!”


*- Lis means “fox” in Polish, so it is my best guess that this is referring to a fox fur collar (given that it cannot be a hat, as one is mentioned in the next line, and is described as going “up to his ears” (biz hinter di oyern.)

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