Friday, 10 March 2017

Yiddish, anyone?

It was not easy growing up speaking Yiddish in the nascent state of Yisrael. The language evoked memories of the Diaspora and its recent tragedy of the Shoah, an experience that has forever changed the Jewish people.

It was my first language, the only one I could communicate through with my grandmother who never spoke Hebrew. It was also the language that drew much mockery, contempt and disdain by many. “That is the language of the Ghetto,” some suggested. “That is the language of those who went like a lamb to the slaughter house, without any resistance,” others yet never hesitated to contribute their two cents. I was called a “vusvus.” (what, what in Yiddish). I was called a “soap” since, after all, Yiddish was the language spoken by those, some of whom were targeted to become soap by the Nazi killing machine.

These condescending remarks, however, never deterred me. They had the opposite effect on me. “I am a daughter of two such ’lambs’,” I always came out in defense of Shoah victims. I saw their existence as a triumph. “It is the language of survivors,” I retorted. “in fact, Yiddish is the culture of survivors.” I was proud to speak it, to hear my grandmother’s Yiddish stories about shtetl life, to sing its songs and to laugh at its humour. “If not for Yiddish and its humour,” my late mother told me on more than one occasion, “I doubt that even those who had come out of the inferno would have. אז מעז הונגעריק זינגט מען אונד אז עס טוט ווי לאכט מען  (When you are hungry, you sing and when you hurt, you laugh) was our motto when we were in the Nazi camps,” she repeatedly told me. I adopted this motto.

Years later, when I lived in Texas, I taught a Yiddish course in one of the synagogues as part of an adult education program. I always started the lesson with a humourous anecdote about life in the shtetl. On one occasion, I had to travel out of town and asked another teacher to cover for me. “Why have you been teaching them only about the wonderful aspects of shtetl life?” she asked me upon my return. ”Why don’t you teach them about the hunger, the poverty, the anti-Semitism?” I did not need time to think of an answer. “That, they can read about in any encyclopedia,” I told her. ”The purpose of my course is to teach them how the Yiddish language and culture helped Jews overcome some of the darkest chapters in our Jewish history. This is what Yiddish is for me, this is what Yiddish was for many, a survival tool.”

Unfortunately, not many are aware that the Yiddish culture which nearly became extinct since so many of its members were brutally eradicated, was also blessed with great writers, poets, philosophers and thinkers. My daughter and I had the honour to have had a glimpse at it when we attended a two month Yiddish course at the University of Vilna, in Lithuania.

Vilna housed one of the largest Ghettos during the early years of WWII. The Ghetto library, full of Yiddish books, was one of its busiest centers. One hundred thousand books, per month, were checked out at one point of its existence. The Yiddish culture was the residents’ sustenance, their elixir and sliver of hope during those difficult years.

So yes, Yiddish it is for me. I still learn it, read it, speak it and sing it. I vowed that as long as I am alive, it will live on with me and through me. My parents taught it to me, I taught it to my daughter and I intend to teach it to my grandchildren. After all, isn’t remembering, keeping our heritage alive one of the tenets of Judaism? Is it not what Exodus 13,8 commands us where it says, “And you shall tell your son. וְהִגַּדְתָּ֣ לְבִנְךָ֔” ?


  1. That reminds me of the wave of immigrants who came to the US with the turn of the century and who did not speak their native language to their children because they wanted to forget their sad past. They also had a great desire to assimilate as quick as possible to their new life. They did not value their language.
    Those children lament now the fact that their parents did not teach them that language that is lost to most of them.
    Immigrants today see things differently, and most of them speak their mother tongue to their children. As I do.

    1. Thank you Carolina. I met many of these in many places around the world. What a loss for them. That culture, its idioms, jokes and expressions have nourished my soul. I bowed to never deprive my descendsants of it. Happy Purim