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From the ‘old country’

I was surprised when I learned the fanatical lengths to which Jewish immigrants to America a century ago went to speak English like Americans
Illustrative. The Hasidim of Tarnow. (YouTube)
Illustrative. The Hasidim of Tarnow. (YouTube)

I often visited my grandfather when I was a boy. He davened at the Pailishe shtiebel on Ross Street in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. In those days, Williamsburg was an immigrant neighborhood, a far cry from the Coolest Place on Earth that part of it later became.

The men who led the davening at the Pailishe shtiebel were old. Of course, when you’re a boy everyone looks old, but these men were really old. Some of them may have been in their 50s, or even 60s.

They davened with an accent. I assumed the accent was Yiddish or Polish, since the men spoke Yiddish and, like my Zeyde, came from Poland, though I could not have told you where in Poland he came from. Their accent struck me as traditional and authentic. I would not have used those words, but the way the men davened seemed like the right way, the way it was done back in the Old Country, not the way I did it, whatever that was.

Born in the US, my parents did not speak with an accent. That seemed normal to me, since they came from my country, not the old one. It was only much later that I learned the fanatical lengths to which Jewish immigrants to America a century ago went to speak English like Americans. Having an accent marked you as a griner — a greenhorn, an object of derision and contempt. As an American boy, I knew nothing of that. But for davening, an accent seemed fine, even preferable.

Fast forward six-and-a-half decades. I recently found myself in Israel, doing a lot of davening. The men leading the services were mostly greybeards. I note their facial hair pigment rather than their age, because when you’re old everyone looks young. Why, these men could be in their 60s, even their 50s.

Like the men in the Pailishe shtiebel, they davened with accent brought over from the Old Country. Only this time the Old Country was the United States.

Say what you want about the American accent in Hebrew, but what you say will not contain the words “traditional” or “authentic.”

Immigrant shuls generally last a generation or two. Children and grandchildren of the founders quickly learn to talk like the locals in the new country, for the sensible reason that people do whatever they can to fit in and not be marked as outsiders. In America the Russishe shuls, the Rumainshe shuls, and all the rest of them have long since rebranded themselves or gone out of business. Some joined with other fading institutions and tried to sustain their original identity by hyphenating their names with those of the shuls they joined. But multi-hyphenated names get unwieldy, and need to be boiled down further to acronyms, strings of letters. Perhaps one of the letters in such a condensed alphabet salad is a “V.” Not one current member in a hundred will know where — or what — Volhynia is, and far fewer will care about the long-forgotten founders who built shuls to commemorate their communities in the Old Country, preserve their minhagim (customs), and recall their former way of life.

As accents fade, so do mental maps of the Old Country. Israeli descendants of shuls populated by American olim will have as vague a notion of where, exactly, the family came from in the States as their American forebears did about where, exactly, the family lived in Ukraine, or was it Bessarabia. “I think our family lived in Milwaukee,” they will say. “Or maybe Seattle.”

People remember the parts of the past they find of use to their present. Knowing whether great-grandma left from Petersburg or Pinsk for Pittsburgh or Poughkeepsie generally does not make the cut. There are exceptions. Exceptions are exceptional.

I am back in the US now, where the way I pronounce Hebrew passes for normal. Though I can hardly call America the New Country, calling it the Old Country doesn’t feel right either. I think I will call it the Transitional Country. For Jews, most countries are.

About the Author
Avi Rockoff lives in Newton, Massachusetts
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