How it really was: A Wolfe without a donkey

The cow jumped over the moon (photo credit: COURTESY AVRAHAM AVI-HAI)
The cow jumped over the moon
IF YOU were born to immigrant Jews in Toronto’s ghetto, your native tongue was not English. You had a problem when you got to school.
But before that, let’s make it clear that “ghetto” in the West is and was an urban area where Jews chose or choose to cluster together for social comfort, family proximity, and access to synagogues and kosher food. And that’s where I grew up.
At any rate, here I am in public (elementary) school, about two or three blocks from home. My sisters were in higher grades so they took me to school. I recall vividly our large kindergarten room and vaguely under standing that this was our Canadian place, where we are supposed to act differently. That was an unrecognized Jewish feeling.
In some ways Canadian schools were very progressive way back in the 1930s. I had entered kindergarten in January. Instead of having to repeat kindergarten, I was promoted to a “lower” Grade 1. This room, too, I can see in my mind’s eye. I particularly recall our reader. One page had a great big yellow Humpty Dumpty. And then there was a wonderful illustrated “Hey diddle diddle/the cat and the fiddle./The cow jumped over the moon./The little dog laughed to see such sport,/and the dish ran away with the spoon.”
How could a cow jump over the moon? And how could the dish run away, with or without the spoon? But somehow I knew it was make-believe.
Years later, in Jerusalem, I read Mother Goose poems to my Sabra girls, with all the rhythm and fun and laughter, though we also read the Hebrew children’s poems, or sang Israeli children’s folk songs. An aside: just think that a language not spoken, surviving in writing only for close to two thousand years, creates children’s folk songs barely decades after spoken Hebrew is revived? That is unparalleled in human history.
But back to Toronto, 1935. When a Yiddish-first-language child, like me, heard songs echoing through the corridors, we’d often hear wrong. For example, “In days of yore/from Britain’s shore,/Wolfe, the dauntless hero came....”
Wolfe, the dauntless hero, was General James Wolfe, the young British commander, who had his troops unexpectedly climb up steep cliffs to surprise and vanquish the French forces near Quebec. This was about 250 years ago, and that battle won Canada for Britain. But I, an immigrant child, did not hear “Wolfe, the ‘dauntless’ hero came.”
I actually heard “donkless.”
“Wolfe, the donkless hero.” What does donkless mean? Simple enough! Obviously poor General Wolfe, who was killed in that battle, had no donkey. He was donkless; yet he prevailed.
I recall walking down the corridor on the second floor of school and hearing the higher grades singing “My body lies over the ocean... Bring back my body to me.”
Imagine, by now I may be all of six years old. How could my body lie over the ocean? How can you not have a body and how can you bring it back? Unable then to find an answer, only a few years later did I under stand that “my body” was actually “my bonnie.”
There were two popular songs I heard as a child, where again the ear misled me. “Shoefly, don’t bother me.” Why would there be a special fly for shoes?
Clearly, we never used the word “shoo” in the sense of “go away.”
In a song of a rejected damsel dying of love, I heard her sing: “Adieu, kind friends adieu, adieu,/I can no longer stay with you, stay with you,/I'll hang my heart on a weeping willow tree,/And may the world go well with thee.” Obviously the poor girl was to “hang her harp on the weeping willow tree,” which is a lovely phrase.
But who knew what a harp was? Who knew – at my age – that King David played one?
From King David, the passing of 2,500 years brings us to poor Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella – yes, the two who banished the Jews from Spain in 1492. Their majesties wanted to make a match with Prince Arthur, son of England’s Henry VII, in the hope of enriching themselves with part of the lucrative English wealth from the spices’ trade. In our singing class, we were taught, “The King of Spain’s daughter came to visit me/ All for the sake of my little nutmeg tree.” The words meant nothing to us, but all the Jewish kids exchanged surreptitious looks.
Why surreptitious? Because the melody was a Jewish thing. Non-Jews like our teacher would not understand. It was music we knew from Hebrew School. Hatikva!
I can’t refrain from crashing into the territory of the musicologists. The prayer “Tal ,” recited on the last day of Passover, marks the transition from the rainy season to the dry summer, when dew (tal) helps keep the land and its produce and people alive. In the beautiful Sefardi version, the words are simple: “Go in peace rain, come in peace dew.” The melody is that of Hatikva. All proving that this ancient Sefardi tradition is authentic, and uninfluenced by our present-day Hatikva. On the contrary, it’s hundreds of years old, and shared by Spanish Jews and English singers.
And as an aside that pays homage to the English ear, Catherine’s mother – Isabella the Catholic – was Queen of Castile when her marriage to Ferdinand, King of Aragon, created the Kingdom of Spain. Thus Catherine of Aragon also bore the title La Infanta de Castilla. Whoops! The English ear heard “Elephant and Castle” and thus was born a pub that has fathered countless more.
While we are on the subject of kings, it was in 1939 when King George VI made his famous Christmas speech broadcast by BBC to Britain, the Empire and the Commonwealth. World War II was not quite four months old. The speech was delivered slowly, with many pauses but there was neither stutter nor stammer. Its last few sentences were pinned up on our Grade 5 wall not far from my seat. The lines quoted by the King were taken from a poem written decades earlier:
“I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year.
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’
And he replied.
‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.’”
We were being taught to be patriotic Canadian children. We were being taught to be good Jewish children. This was simultaneously a coming out of the ghetto and staying inside. It was a natural and happy process. It was hearing Hatikva in “The King of Spain’s Daughter” and bearing loyalty to George VI, who was, after all, King of Canada, too.
Avraham Avi-hai has lived in Israel for 66 years. His reminiscences of the Toronto ghetto and leaving it characterize an experience shared by children of immigrants in all their new countries.