Florence Berkowitz-Siegelberg
Florence Berkowitz-Siegelberg

Zooming home to Yiddish

Courtesy of the artist, Silvia Wagensberg.(www.silviawagensberg.com), a fellow student in an online Yiddish class (Worker's CIrcle, Fall 2020)
Courtesy of the artist, Silvia Wagensberg.(www.silviawagensberg.com), a fellow student in an online Yiddish class (Worker's CIrcle, Fall 2020)

Searching for a silver lining in the pandemic, evokes the dark humor of the inquiry, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

An oft-cited principle of Judaism, that God creates a remedy prior to the onset of a disease, however, points to the need to insert positivity within a tragedy even before it strikes. The precept resonated as I contemplated an on-line tool that emerged before Covid and became a universal lifeline throughout the year of isolation, and, in a particular way, for me.

Like many offspring of Holocaust survivors, my childhood home was suffused with Yiddish, through which my parents spoke to each other as well as with friends and relatives. While I understood most of what I heard, I regarded it as a language of the past. My parents probably did, as well, and spoke to their children in a faulty English to which we responded fluently and condescendingly.

When my father was terminally ill in 2008, his limited English abandoned him, and I needed to summon up Yiddish for us to communicate. Amazingly, words that had been lying dormant throughout the years began to emerge, and I was elated each time he understood my clumsily constructed sentences. I resolved to better my grasp of the language and registered serially for evening classes in Manhattan, but fatigue and subway rides were formidable deterrents to progress.

Enter zoom, the lockdown portal to the world.

The ‘Grine Kuzines’, as I call a group of friends with backgrounds similar to mine, a reference based on the title of an old Yiddish song about immigrant life in America, agreed to ‘meet’ weekly to schmooze in our shared heritage language. Even though the resolve was sincere, we were equally deficient in fluency, and most attempts started with ‘how do you say…”, and ended with talking in English.

Nonetheless, a relaxed atmosphere pervaded our meetings as we seamlessly lapsed into discussions about the DP camps, where a few group members were born, as well as other Holocaust related topics, conversations we tend to avoid with ‘Americana’ friends. This provided insight into the feelings of the ‘grine’ parents of my childhood bungalow colony when they compared concentration camp experiences as organically as others exchange college stories, and then changed the subject when ‘Americanas’ came by.

The ‘kuzine’ members also tend to lapse into Yinglish, inflections and all, at our ongoing get-togethers, and this has been a further source of comfort as well as insight into my past. I recalled listening with my father to WEVD radio (“the station that speaks your language”) on Saturday nights when he would make Persian lamb coats for customers in his work room at home, and I would stand beside him and ‘stretch paws’, as he called that part of the process. As we worked, we heard advertisements touting the wonders of Carnation Instant Milk and Rabbinical discussions on koshering false teeth for Passover. Most intriguing, however, was seeing my father in a rare state of ease as he exercised a skill honed in his youth, while he listened to programs delivered in Yiddish, his mother tongue.

It was the language of Jews throughout Europe. Without it, my parents could not have easily met. My father was from a small town in the Carpathians and was familiar with its ‘goyish’ language, a dialect of Ukrainian, but spoke Yiddish almost exclusively. My mother grew up in the urbane setting of Lodz, Poland and spoke German and Polish, but knew some basic Yiddish. Through it, when my parents met in Sweden, where they were taken for convalescence following liberation, my father could initiate a conversation with his future wife. It also enabled my mother to carve a close relationship with her relatives who had come to America before the war. Even though she had never met them before arriving in 1947, through this shared feature of their heritage, the lack of familiarity quickly disappeared.

Similarly, when I enrolled this past fall in yet another Yiddish class, this time on-line, I was able to interact with classmates from Brazil, Israel, Japan, Ukraine, and Russia through the common language we were studying, The course, in which we read the works of famous writers, watched live presentations by Yiddishists throughout the world, and viewed old films, also gave me a ‘beyond the Pale’ appreciation for the depth and beauty of the language. Most important, it enabled me to make strides towards my original and longstanding goal to become a more proficient speaker, and encouraged me to continue my virtual journey.

The pandemic inflicted pain and suffering that can never be erased. However, Mrs. Lincoln, with the help of the zoom balm, the show goes on.


About the Author
Florence Berkowitz-Siegelberg grew up in Brooklyn, NY, and she and her husband raised three daughters on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She has published several freelance articles and produced a documentary, "The Road From Destruction", based on interviews with survivors. She recently retired from Kingsborough Community College where she taught writing.
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