Commentary Magazine


On the Horizon: Goldstein on Bullheads, Larshi on Pike

In the sport of fishing, as everyone knows, there is a worm at one end of the line and a fool at the other. Since Jews have always made a special point of not appearing to be fools, fishing has not been one of their enthusiasms. In recent years, however, Lucy S. Dawidowicz reports, there has been a change. Whether the Jews have become more foolish or fishing a more intelligent occupation cannot here be determined, but the fact remains that there has recently appeared a book on fishing in Yiddish, and a regular fishing column now graces the pages of the Jewish Daily Forward.

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In the last few years Jews have turned up in the most unlikely places—as a colonel in the Chinese army, as Miss America, as toreador in the bull-ring. Enter now the Jew as fisherman. The appearance within the past two years of not one, but two Yiddish writers on the ancient sport of angling testifies to the revolutionary fact. We now have Waltons named Abe (author of Fishfang) and Ben (“The Pike and I,” etc.) to set (or perhaps, rather, sit) beside the Christian Izaak.

True, in the ancient world Jews were well known as fisherfolk, and both the Bible and the Talmud are replete with references to fishing as a Jewish occupation. But with the passing of the centuries, Jews became landlocked and fishing among them seems to have ceased. Occasionally, one finds in modern times mention of an exotic group of Jewish fishermen on the Baltic or of carp-breeding Jews in the heart of Poland. But for the past ten or more centuries, there is very little evidence that Jews ever encountered fish beyond the confines of the market or the dining room.

And even in ancient times when Jews did fish, they engaged in it as an occupation and not as a sport. William Radcliffe, an English ichthyologist, remarks, in his book Fishing from the Earliest Times (London, 1921), that “the ancient Israelites (like the early Greeks and Romans) were pot-hunters bent on the spoil rather than on the sport of their catch, but (unlike them) continued to the end uninfected by the joy or passion of angling.”

Indeed, the story of the relations of Jews to fish for the greater part of their history can be subsumed in one word—ichthyophagy: the Jew ate the fish and that was the end of it. Even as slaves in Egypt the Jews ate fish, and the memory arose to plague them in their hunger in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land: “We remember the fish, which we were wont to eat in Egypt for naught.” In Babylon, in the Talmudic period, a popular Jewish proverb to denote great dispatch was: “as from the sea to the frying pan.” The Jewish custom of eating fish Friday evening is mentioned by the Roman poet Persius (3462 c.E.), and to this day, among Jews wherever they may live, no Sabbath eve is complete without fish. And what would the shalosh sudos, the third Sabbath meal, be without at least some herring or marinated fish? It is well known, also, that when the Messiah comes all good Jews will feast on Leviathan, the greatest fish of them all.

But nothing is said about catching Leviathan: than the whole point is that Leviathan will be presented all ready to be eaten, served up in fine style on the Great Platter of the Millennium.

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And so it has remained down through the centuries to our fathers’ days: a fish is not something in a stream but something on a plate. Certainly a Jew in the shtetl had better things to do than fish for sport: he could go to the bet hamedresh for religious study or for some gossip with his cronies; he could peruse a sefer; he could always take a nap after eating the Sabbath tcholnt and kugel. A secularized Jew in the city could go to a café, attend a political meeting, play chess. Fishing—that was for goyim.

In general, the Jew in Eastern Europe looked upon the animal kingdom without personal interest. Toleration was extended to cows, goats, and chickens because they helped provide for human beings; a cat had its uses in eliminating mice. Most other animals were to be avoided and many were to be feared. Certainly none could be “understood.” Jewish jokes about animals always emphasize the naivety and general maladress of a Jew confronted with one of God’s dumb creatures; in a sense, animals were only another variety of goyim—mysterious, intractable, and likely to bite if provoked.

Most Yiddish proverbs about fish usually conceive of them only as food. Geshmak iz der fish oyf yenems tish—tasty is the fish on someone else’s table. A fish hot lib a trink bronfn—a fish likes a shot of whisky. Der vos hot geholfn oyf fish, vet helfn oyf fefer—He who provided the fish will provide the pepper. Vos darf ich dem levyosn? Ich hob a bonde mit gezaltsenem hering—Who needs Leviathan? I have a roll with salt herring. But there are a few proverbs about fishing itself. In a groysn taych chapt men groyse fish—in a big river you can catch big fish. Mit a ventke chapt men fish un mit a kerbl chapt men mentshn—you catch fish with a rod, and you catch people with a ruble. Dos vereml nart op, un nit der fisher oder di ventke—it’s the worm that does the deceiving, not the fisherman or the rod.

Of the classic Yiddish writers, Mendele Mocher Sforim, the “grandfather of Yiddish literature,” is one of the few, to my knowledge, who have written about the fish in its living state. CY. L. Peretz’s Nisim Oyfn Yam—”Miracles on the Sea”—ostensibly deals with a Jewish fisherman and his efforts to catch a fish for the High Holidays; but this is not a story about fish or fishing—it is about devotion to Judaism.) In an essay Der fish vos hot ayngeshlungen yoyne hanovi (“The fish that swallowed the prophet Jonah”) Mendele discusses with humor and erudition- the habits of the man-eating shark. But Mendele was always an exception; in all his work he sought to bring a breath of the outside world into the Pale, and was one of the few Yiddish writers at the beginning of the modern era to write about the outdoors. In the last few decades, descriptions of nature are no longer rare in Yiddish literature—but still no fish.

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Now at last, with the publication of Abe Goldstein’s Yiddish work Fishfang (“Fishing; Notes of a Fisherman,” New York, 1951), a new epoch in Jewish life has opened. Now fishing can be classified as a Jewish sport along with chess and pinochle, and the thousands of Jews who fish the waters of America for sport need no longer feel themselves “assimilationists.”

Mr. Goldstein loves fishing neither for the full creel nor the full stomach. With him, it is primarily a battle of wits to see whether he can outsmart the fish under conditions equally favorable to both man and fish. No less important is the arena in which this contest takes place—the lake or stream surrounded by greenery, the early morning light or the setting sun. But Goldstein can speak for himself:“ The sport of fishing becomes interesting and captivates you because of the game itself, because of the trees, flowers . . . the warmth of the sun, and finally the capture itself. . . . It may be said that to capture and to be oneself captured is the essence of the sport.”

And yet, we are never entirely removed from the table—as is only proper. It is written: “And whatsoever hath not fins and scales ye shall not eat; it is unclean unto you.” This proscription has been carefully heeded by Mr. Goldstein—in fact, it seems to have determined his very attitude toward the finless or scaleless fish, most notably in the case of the bullhead or catfish.

Among goyishe fishermen, the bullhead is rated quite high in the category of panfish for catchability and good eating. Not by Goldstein. Bullheads are goyishe fish and he has learned how not to catch them. They are fish “which Jews not only don’t eat, but cannot even look upon with indifference.” He goes on: “When I think, in connection with the bullheads, of the Jewish koreslech,1 the familiar pike, the lovely perch, and the aristocratic bass, it seems to me that my stream is like the shtetl in the old country, where the respectable and respected denizens were encircled, as a sign of galut, by a village of peasants. Many days during the year the peasants would throng to the market and Christianize the shtetl. Only after they returned to their village did the Jews breathe more freely. Such days, too, occur in my stream in the summer, when, wherever you fish, you catch only bullheads. . . . ”

A certain tolerance does creep in, however: after all, America is not the old country. Mr. Goldstein does grant that the bullhead serves a useful purpose as a food for the Jewish bass, which grow fat and strong upon their pagan prey. Also, he admits, bullheads make suitable catches for his Christian friends when they come to his stream.

Koreslech (that is, sunfish), on the contrary, evoke a particular affection from our Jewish fisherman. He describes their habits, their mating and spawning, and concludes: “Incidentally we should not forget that these are the same fish which were so well known at the Sabbath table in the old country and which helped to make a real Oneg Shabbat for the masses of Jewish folk. Only here we see them alive instead of fried or boiled.”

Even the pike, among the most vicious of all fish, is treated more kindly than the bullhead, perhaps for no other reason than that the quintessence of gefilte fish is the pike. Nor should we forget about boiled pike, hot or cold, and marinated pike.

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Fishfang is not just a “how-to-do-it” book in Yiddish. The reader will not learn how to fish by reading this book any more than he can learn from Walton’s Compleat Angler, though Walton is far more specific than Goldstein. Only two of the seventeen chapters deal with fishing techniques and fishing tackle—in very simplified form. Mr. Goldstein discourses at great length on the nature and habits of certain common varieties of game and pan fish, and tells us of many of his own experiences: fishing for muskies in Minnesota, deep-sea fishing in Florida, night fishing, ice fishing, and even a venture in taming several bass so that they would feed directly from his hand. He speaks also, in a simple and charming prose, of the morals and ethics of the game, the contemplative pleasures, the fierce joys of the struggle. And, like one of the old maskilim who used the lowly Yiddish language to broaden the horizons of those who knew no other tongue, Mr. Goldstein has more than one fish to fry: “In publishing this book,” he writes in his preface, “I thought very much of our children in the [Yiddish] schools, that they might, through the Yiddish language, become acquainted with the sport of fishing, which has a great influence on the development of the child’s character.”

One horizon, at least, has been broadened by this delightful book: I owe my own first venture in fishing to the stimulation of Mr. Goldstein’s volume; and the first venture will not be the last. Perhaps it is the fact that the book is written in Yiddish, as much as anything else, which accounts for its peculiar pull. The outdoors, full of strange creatures and unknown perils, somehow becomes personal and congenial, as though the very use of Yiddish had made it possible to be on familiar speaking terms with running brooks and placid lakes and the creatures inhabiting them.

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Several months after the publication of Mr. Goldstein’s book, the subject of fishing again appeared on the Yiddish literary scene.

In July 1952 the Jewish Daily Forward published an article by Ben Larshi, a staff writer, called “The Pike and I.” Larshi told of a pike that had tantalized him for three weeks until he caught it. The article evoked an unexpectedly strong response, and a number of readers suggested that a column on fishing be made a regular feature.

In a second piece, Larshi told about an old Pole who fished for carp in Willett’s Pond in Flushing. Larshi was somewhat contemptuous about carp as a game fish: all you had to do was drop a line with the proper bait to the muddy bottom of a sluggish pond and haul in the carp. And while the old Pole with his ancient steel rod, fifty-pound line, and bait compounded of mysterious ingredients, caught more than a dozen carp, the “sportsmen” with their fine equipment didn’t even get a nibble. This time Larshi was attacked on all sides. He was furnished with dozens of recipes for the mysterious dough the old Pole had used for bait. One subscriber in Lake Luzerne, N. Y., wrote: “There is quite a Jewish population in Lake Luzerne, and we’re not far from the Hudson, which teems with carp. Do you know why? Because the Yankee fishermen don’t want carp—so our people can get all they want, and eat carp stuffed, baked, boiled, smoked, and marinated. But it will be the same as with cottage cheese: once only Jews, Poles, and Russians ate it, but now you find it all over the country.”

Another correspondent, Israel Vigodsky, managed to connect the carp and anti-Semitism. It seems he was fishing for carp one day when a tall, well-fed young man in a brand-new fishing outfit, with a brand-new fly rod, joined him. Learning that Vigodsky was fishing for carp, the young man was elated and boasted that he would catch a big one. Putting a plug on his line, he began casting. After a half-hour, he complained the fish weren’t biting. Vigodsky suggested that he would not land a carp on a plug. The young man was scornful. Just then, Vigodsky felt a tug on his line. Ten minutes later, he pulled in a fifteen-pound carp. The young man packed up his equipment, muttering: “I don’t like carp anyway. It’s a Jew-fish”—and he was clearly not referring to jewfish (black or spotted).

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Since last September, Mr. Larshi has written a regular column under the title “Yidn chapn fish.” The column deals frequently with fishing techniques and tackle, but the more interesting columns, from our point of view, are those devoted to the letters from readers. Only one reader has so far

taken exception to the “goyish” fishing column in a Yiddish paper, invoking Jacob and Esau to prove that fishing, like hunting, is a cruel sport. All other letters are from fishing enthusiasts who are pleased with the column.

It is generally agreed among the letter-writers that Jews—Yiddish-speaking Jews, that is—discovered angling within the last two decades. One reader advanced the theory that the depression, leaving many Jews poor and distraught, turned them toward fishing as a release from their troubles. Though some have been fishing for thirty or forty years, most of Larshi’s correspondents took up fishing recently, past their middle age. With some, it was because of high blood pressure or a heart condition—the doctor had prescribed relaxation. And it was their children, the second-generation “Americanized” youth, who introduced them to the joys of angling. In other cases, retirement from business or the factory made the selection of a restful avocation mandatory.

Most of the writers grow poetic about fishing, as does our author Abe Goldstein, who, incidentally, has contributed several pieces to Larshi’s column. They extoll the lake or stream, the skies, the trees, and, of course, the fish themselves. Several, with a show of virtue, point out how much better it is to be outdoors fishing than playing pinochle in a smoke-filled room.

One problem that remains is that of vocabulary. It is to be hoped that Larshi and others will eventually work out suitable Yiddish equivalents for fishing terms. Nahum Stutchkoff’s Thesaurus of the Yiddish Language lists 132 words for different fish, but at least half are dialectal variants or merely Yiddish spellings of English or Slavic words. Some of the Yiddish names for specific fish have not always been correctly identified in English. There has, for example, been some question as to whether Harkavy’s translation of shtinke as “smelt” is accurate. As for fishing gear, the Thesaurus lists only about twenty words, most of which designate different types of nets. Perhaps the editors of the Yiddish Scientific Institute’s linguistic journal Yidishe Shprakh might do their part—especially if they could be got to go fishing.

As in all things Jewish, there are problems to be solved. It’s not just a matter of a piece of string and a bent pin. . . .

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Footnotes

1 A koresl (pl., koreslech; Russian and Polish, karash; German, Karausche), is the crucian carp, carassius vulgaris, a Central European fish which bears certain outward similarities to our sunfish. Mr. Goldstein probably wanted his East European readers to identify the American species with something familiar and thus incorrectly referred to the sunfish as koreslech. To compound the confusion, the printer, obviously no fisherman, reversed the captions under the photographs of the sunfish and the crappie. Caveat piscator—the koresl is a European fish; it is neither a sunfish nor a crappie.

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