“Mommy is going to learn quidditch!” my son announced one evening last week.
My husband turns to me, bewildered, somehow oblivious to the multiple lectures we have received on Harry Potter’s extracurricular activities.
“It’s Yiddish, and…” I try to explain, but my voice is already drowned out by the bullying I am receiving from the people I am currently cooking dinner for.
“It sounds like this…” my daughter pipes in, and produces a groupings of letters, vowels and mannerisms that vaguely resemble Arabic, pig Latin and a demented rapper.
“No, no!! Like this – GibberishGibberishGibberishGibberish!!” adds the 4 year old.
“Its not Gibberish – IT’S YIDDISH!!” I shout. I turn to the husband, employing my ‘begging eyes’ to get him to help quell the uprising and talk some sense into the kids. But he’s halfway up the stairs, hands in the air, shouting out what I have inferred from the context are Yiddish curses that his grandparents once flung around the house.
“Geh, schlog zach die kopf in wand!”
How has this happened? How is it possible that I have reproduced not one, not two, but three whole times, and none of those little pishers have come out with the Yiddish gene? They are good kids, kiyne hora, but a little plain to be honest. Growing up with immigrant parents in an immigrant heavy country means they live in a cultural no-man’s land, constantly ducking the bullets of conflicting customs, accents and stereotypes. I’m American, my kids are not. They are slightly American, but possess a very odd, late Soviet-like fascination with America, something about blue jeans and Michael Jackson. Their English is accentless except for an occasional Michigan twang that creeps in even though none of us have ever been there.They are born and bred Israelis but other than their haircuts, self confidence, and having no problem with asking strangers for their snack food, it’s actually hard to believe. Aside from the occasional soccer related word, they possess no traces of their father’s English background, but to be honest that could be due to heavy ridicule on my part. As for any traces of old school, shmaltzy, sarcastic, self-deprecating characteristics the result of a long history of oppression, depression and incest – GORNISHT, not a trace. Well, my youngest speaks with his hands a bit, but he is also hyper-active, so who knows?
I am a failure of a Jewish mother. By their age I had seen Fiddler On The Roof twice on Broadway and multiple times on VCR, I thought George Burns was a distant uncle, and assumed every 10 year old girl had a Funny Girl poster above their bed. I was born holding a pastrami on rye, built like a small truck with a big nose and arms just long enough to fish a dill pickle from the bottom of a barrel.
Half of my family are Italian Catholics for God’s sake, and not only do I know Yiddish, even THEY do, those meshuganas! My mother drilled Yiddish phrases into all of us, along with a love of knishes and a distaste for anything from ‘the wrong side of the tracks’. It wasn’t a religious household, or even traditional, but it was very JEW-ish, and that meant when a sentiment needed that extra punch, the magic of Yiddish was summoned to get the point across.
Drek. Goyisha Kop. Chutzpah. Farklempt. Shmutz. Farpitzed. And my personal favorite, Ungapatchka. Oh sure, there were many more, but I wouldn’t dare publish them here.
You know why.
So, why Yiddish? And why now? After all, I have spent the past ten years becoming a ‘New Jew’, learning Hebrew, driving badly, and cranking up the chuzpah. My entire adult life has been about developing this new identity, and struggling to understand how the hell I fit into Israeli society. But lately I’ve been a bit homesick for the old country. Which country exactly? I don’t know, it doesn’t exist on a map and it doesn’t matter. It exists in memories, in sounds, in tastes, mannerisms and emotions. Like a chicken soup recipe, it’s a little different for everyone. Mine is heavy on the Borsht Belt and Vaudeville. Whatever it is for you, Yiddish is inextricably part of it on some level, and very possibly the force that keeps it all going.
To my surprise, there were a ton of courses to choose from, and I started with the Wednesday morning beginners class at Beit Shalom Aleichem. I sat in a room surrounded by people, some of whom may very possibly have been around when Yiddish was first in style, and all of whom know it a hell of alot better than I do. Learning a new language is not easy but I was hoping for a bit of a bargain considering my English, Hebrew, and overwhelming Jewy disposition. But I was wrong! Oy vey iz mir, that shit ain’t easy. Unlike the ABC’s, the beginning of the Yiddish alphabet is NOT a very good place to start, as there are three different versions of A/א and I’m already confused. Don’t even get me started on the vowels. Plus, contrary to my hopes, the vocabulary list includes no curse words, and there’s not a single insult in the workbook as far as I can tell.
I’m not gonna be a kvetch. I have committed myself to learning the language of (some of) my ancestors, to keeping it alive and becoming part of the incredible revival of Yiddish taking place right now. I have even begun a cultural indoctrination program in my household. Out with the hummus and in with the herring. These kids are going to learn how to be Old Jews as well as New Jews. I will find knishes, and they will eat them, hot on the outside and cold on the inside, just like I did. They will fish for pickles. They will eat…oye, why does this all have to do with eating?
They will get a taste for the old country just as I did and they will learn that there is more to our history than tzores. There is rich, beautiful culture of music and literature and language that lives on and thrives, as well as a strong possibility that they will become lawyers or commedianes with lactose problems and a love of baseball. I will teach those vilda chayas how to kibbitz like a true alter kaker or miyne neuman isn’t Bridgitte Raven.