My will-o’-the wisp impression as a secular Jew living in a predominantly non-Jewish environment in England, is that Yiddish is experiencing a resurgence within Jewish communities throughout the world. I hope that this is the case. It was a language once thought to be at risk of being eclipsed by Hebrew and I have read of the determination on the part of robust young Jews in the early days of the Zionist movement to consign it to the past as a relic of a lost world, to be remembered and mourned but to be replaced by a revived Hebrew language in the newly established State of Israel.
Yiddish was the language of my parents’ childhood. However, after their families emigrated to South Africa they cultivated English as the medium through which they would conduct their daily lives. My father became a teacher in an English medium state school and both my parents spoke English without a trace of a Yiddish accent, a fact which pleased me as a child, not wanting to be earmarked as a little foreigner and a Jew to boot.
However, Yiddish retained its place at home as the language of emotional discourse, especially for my mother, who readily reverted to it when wanting to mention something fit only for grown-up ears. This, of course, inspired me to pick up enough of the language to enable me to work out what was being discussed.
Hebrew was an altogether different proposition. My father was an ardent Hebraist. He studied Semitic languages at university and joined the Histadrut Ivrit, an organisation devoted to the promulgation of modern Hebrew as a spoken and written language. When I was five or six years old he introduced me to the Hebrew alphabet and I spent the next few years reading children’s stories and passages from the Old Testament. I mugged up enough grammar and vocabulary to enable me to sit the matriculation examination, not a very high bar, as it turned out, and I somehow managed to pass with distinction.
However, after several months spent working in Israel my ability to tune in to the spoken word remained miserably inadequate. When faced with a Hebrew newspaper I managed to decipher some words here and there but the exercise still felt more like code-breaking than reading. I only had to stumble over one or two key words to lose the gist of the passage and throw in the towel. Why battle through ‘Ha’aretz’ or ‘Yediot Acharanot’ when I could skim ‘The Jerusalem Post’ for my daily newsfeed? I also tried a few novels, the English versions of which I was already familiar with, but these held no allure for me and I discarded them after only a few pages.
When it came to a love of languages, Hebrew and Yiddish jointly came a bad second to English and still do. My father spoke Hebrew well enough to lecture in it and could read and write it with ease, but I never came anywhere near to him in acquiring those skills. My mother spoke Yiddish fluently – it was, after all, her mameloshen. Like many of her generation, she was a master of Yiddish invective, but although I acquired, early on, an engaging repertoire of curses and colourful expressions with which to amuse friends, I never felt any inclination to express myself seriously in the language.
Written Yiddish remained a closed book throughout my younger years, and it is only recently that I have begun, with the aid of a scholarly friend, to read a few Yiddish short stories. Nowadays, reading in the two languages which are stamped onto my Jewish identity has become more of a hobby than anything else. To put it another way, my intellect and my emotions are stimulated by Hebrew and Yiddish, but my heart belongs to English. We are who we are.