This past week I went to dinner and a show, a treat with and from my sister and brother-in-law. We saw a fabulous Yiddish production of Fiddler on the Roof. I have seen the play and movie before, many years ago, but having it in Yiddish was brilliant, as most Jews from the era and place (seemingly the Ukraine) when the play occurred spoke it, and the original Sholom Aleichem story on which it is based was written in Yiddish. It’s a language that has been dismissed as dead and yet it is very much alive, both in young people who have sparked a resurgence, the remaining elderly who grew up speaking it, Orthodox Jews, and audience members like the one that I was in who seemed as enthralled as I was though they may know little of the language.
Yiddish was my mother’s first language; her parents were Russian immigrants who spoke it at home. Years later my parents and a group of their friends started a secular Jewish school which my siblings and I attended, a shul where we learned history, culture and Yiddish. My Jewish friends from school all went to temple and Hebrew school. I didn’t mind being different, in fact I appreciated my upbringing and even as a young girl I valued this other language that was part of my background.
I still can read a little and understand some basic terms and words but I couldn’t decipher much while watching Fiddler given that there was so much wonderful music and choreography to follow, and there were supertitles in English and Russian for the vast majority of the audience who didn’t speak Yiddish.
I left the theater deciding as I do every time I encounter Yiddish culture, that I should study it again. (I also regularly vow to start running every time I watch the New York City marathon. ) I don’t know how much I’d use it – it’s not as practical as improving my rusty Spanish – and yet it’s such a rich and robust language, with many words that have become part of the English vernacular: chutzpah, klutz, shtick, schlep, kvetch, nosh, schmooze…
And so I came home motivated and the next day signed up for Duolingo, a free mobile app that teaches a wide range of languages, in both Yiddish and Spanish. There was a time not too long ago when those two languages co-mingled in a wonderful way, back in pre-gentrified neighborhoods like Williamsburg and the Lower East Side or in the Jewish part of Buenos Aires.
Learning another language is almost a cliche of new year’s resolutions, all those things we will do to exercise our brains and bodies more or learn something new. I think resolutions can be inspiring though as long as they are framed in a positive way: not lose 10 pounds but eat more nourishing food. And so I commit to improve my grasp of two languages I love. It will be good for my brain as well as my soul.
I don’t know how often I will speak Yiddish to anyone but it’s nice to be refreshed and I find in the initial test that I do in fact remember more than I think I do. It comes back to me, the letters and pronunciation of Yiddish, the words and distinct grammar of Spanish. The old world ways may have vanished but I can be my own intersection of Jewish and Latino culture.
I don’t know how long I’ll last – although Duolingo lessons are only about ten minutes, so it’s easy to maintain a practice – but I do feel every day that both languages are coming back to me.
Eventually I’d like to read again the great literature I was familiar with when I was young, Sholem Aleichem being my favorite but others like I.B Singer. If I keep at it someday I will once again be able to read and understand this beautiful language. Of course I have a long way to go before I’ll be able to read anything more than a beginner’s children’s book.
And if I keep up with my Spanish I’ll be able to converse more with my neighbors in the largely Latino immigrant neighborhood adjacent to ours. And I’ll be able to talk to those around me when I retire to Mexico or Costa Rica as I fantasize about. As with Yiddish I have a long way to go before I am chatting with my neighbors or reading Borges in the original Spanish.
I had a cousin who lived in Los Angeles in a Jewish neighborhood that became increasingly Latino in the decades he lived there. His family wanted him to move to another area, but instead in his seventies he went back to school to learn Spanish. I always liked that story, one of embracing difference rather than evading it. Learning a language as a way to make and keep connections. If I was better at languages I would add even more. But for now, being realistic with my time and brain cells, buenos dias and a gutn tog. May it be a year of learning new things.