Sunday, June 12, 2011

`A Goyim Naches'

On June 5, David Myers reminded us that “174 years today Houston was incorporated. May not be fashionable to say so, but I love it—that great sweaty sprawling transient monstrosity.”

The operative word is “transient.” Even to speak of Houston’s incorporation – being given a body – is misleading. It’s a rare city that has no good geographical reason for being where it is, no port or confluence of rivers. It’s flat, hot and surprisingly green, and portions of the city remain marshy. Its excuse for a river is the muddy Buffalo Bayou, home to the occasional transient alligator. Houston attracts transients. We lived there four years, reluctantly at first, with all of our slowly shed Northern prejudices, moved North again for three years, and now I’m going back.

Having lived in five states, and soon to return to No. 4, my sense of “home” is densely layered, like those transparent sheets in anatomy texts – Circulatory, Reproductive and Skeletal Systems – laid one atop another to form a whole. My pre-rational image of “home” is compounded of Cleveland, the Capital District of New York and Houston (with a cameo appearance by Winesburg, Ohio). Indiana and Greater Seattle are not part of the picture. Going “home” to Houston is a transient’s return, not a terminus.

Patrick Leigh Fermor died on Friday, age ninety-six. Better than most writers, he understood the importance of home, of leaving it and returning. In the second of two volumes devoted to his walk across Europe in 1933-34, Between the Woods and the Water (1986), Fermor describes a chance meeting with a group of Jewish loggers in Transylvania:

“My interlocutors looked bewildered when I tried to explain my reasons for not staying at home. Why was I travelling? To see the world, to study, to learn languages? I wasn’t quite clear myself. Yes, some of these things, but mostly—I couldn’t think of the word at first—and when I found it--`for fun’—it didn’t sound right and their brows were still puckered. `Also, Sie treiben so herum aus Vergnügen?’ The foreman shrugged his shoulders and smiled and said something to the others in Yiddish; they all laughed and I asked what it was. `Es ist a goyim naches!’ they said. ‘A goyim naches’, they explained, is something that the goyim like but which leaves Jews unmoved; any irrational or outlandish craze, a goy’s delight or a gentile’s relish. It seemed to hit the nail on the head.”

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