“Tsenarena,” “Tsenarena,” “Tsenarena.” I heard these words said in rapid succession one Jerusalem afternoon back in 2006, between my mother, my cousin Yoram and myself. Yoram’s father arrived at Pre-State Israel from Poland in 1939, six months before the advent of the War.
His father and my mother grew up in the same town, south of Krakow. On that Jerusalem afternoon, my mother was reminiscing about her childhood, and her face brightened up with a big smile every time she mentioned the word “tsenarenah.”
As Yoram and I walked the streets of Jerusalem, I asked about this tsenahrenah that he and Mom were talking about in Yiddish, their lingua franca (Yoram does not speak English and Mom does not speak Hebrew). Yoram said that it was some girl’s book about bible stories written in Yiddish. He said that it cannot be found in any bookstore in Israel, used or new.
I studied a lot about the Tzena U’rena during those subsequent years and was in search of this 16th century bible story book with picture lithographs to give Mom for her birthday. I checked used bookstores from Jerusalem to Williamsburg for a copy written in Yiddish.
I finally came upon one in 2015. Published fifty years earlier, it was in pristine condition. One problem, Mom was now blind, so it remained proudly on my bookshelf.
Four years later (2019), I wanted to explore this book. I knew all about it from studying about it, but my curiosity peaked. Plus, I will fly up to New York every six weeks to check up on my 95-year-old mother, so we can study the Tzena U’rena together.
The chapters of the Tzena U’rena correspond to the weekly Torah Portion. I naturally began with Genesis (B’reshit) after Simhat Torah this year.
To use the colloquial term, “I was blown away.” Modern day Yiddish scholars write that the Tzena U’rena is much more than a girls’ story book. It is scholarly, it is deep, it is erudite. They are so correct. I knew about it, but now I was part and party to it. I am looking forward to studying it every Shabbat.
In the lost world of Ashkenaz (the 1000 year old Jewish life in Europe), we have regaled our culture to the back burner. Yiddish was relegated to “jargon” for hundreds of years and not considered a true language.
The Tzena U’rena was considered a mere young girls’ book, as respected as maybe Dr. Seuss books.
We have so many myths to uncover about this world of Ashkenaz. It is time to set aside myths in order to discover our past, in order to know about ourselves and chart a path to the future.
Discovering our lost culture is one of those means to plot that path.