When I was 3 years old, so the story in my family goes, there was a significant blizzard in Rochester, New York where I grew up. The local newspaper ran an excerpt of John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem “Snowbound” on the front page and my dad taught me to memorize multiple stanzas of that poem. I am certain that I was called upon to recite it endlessly in front of family and anyone else who would listen! I don’t remember that but I do remember all the ways my dad loved to be a part of teaching and of learning. Homework, especially History and English, always brought topics to discuss and education and reading were highly valued in our household. So it still surprises me a bit that one thing my dad wanted to teach me was something I refused. And not just once, over and over.
Dad was born in Poland and came to the United States as an adolescent with his family, fortunately ahead of the Holocaust. I tried a few times to determine if there were any members of his family that survived but it appears that the entire shtetl was annihilated. Dad’s first languages were Yiddish and Polish. He learned English quickly and became well educated, always focused on expanding his knowledge.
In our home, a house filled with bookcases and books, there were shelves and shelves of books in Yiddish. In addition to reading The Forward in Yiddish, he loved to read everything from fiction to politics in their original language. My parents spoke Yiddish to one another when they did not want us to understand but Mom’s Yiddish was pretty much English and my brother and I were quite adept at figuring everything out, especially the “not so nice” words and phrases!
Dad desperately wanted to teach me Yiddish, both to read and to speak and that was the one thing I refused. I’m not sure why actually. Maybe it was my age when he asked me, probably already complaining about Hebrew School three times a week or maybe I was just at a point when I was busy with friends.
So, whether it came from a place of regret or an understanding that Yiddish is an endangered language, I have this year begun to learn some Yiddish. Using a language app on my phone, I have dedicated five or ten minutes of my day, as I drink my morning coffee, to mastering some simple words and phrases.
What has surprised me in all of this is the memories that hearing and reading Yiddish have brought me. As I form sentences and debate about the order of the words, I realize I can remember scraps of conversations from long ago, phrases and words that I heard so many times. While I have long thought that the sound of my father’s voice was lost to me, it comes back in those moments of memory and brings both tears to my eyes and a smile to my heart.
It feels like a gift to me to have those moments, to find those scraps of memory. It feels like a gift to make that connection with the past, with my history and to my dad. I will never be the Yiddish scholar that he was and I know that if he were still here he’d comment “It’s about time!” Still I am grateful for that link from past to present and grateful to carry forward this reminder of my dad and of my history.