sMAartblog

Yiddish – Personal Experience

Posted on: 13/01/2010

Ron Grossman:

“Mine is a generation that learned Yiddish because our parents didn’t want us to. To them, it was the language for keeping family secrets. They’d use it as an S.O.S. when children happened upon a discussion considered unfit for youthful ears.

“Sha!” one parent would say. (“Hush!”)

“Shpeter, veln raidn mir,” the other would respond. (“Later, we’ll talk.”)

My mother and father pushed English. To their ears, it was the linguistic highway to the American dream. It was the language spoken on college campuses, in fancy law firms and doctors’ offices — a world they peeked at from afar. Like Moses who saw a Promised Land he couldn’t enter, the ivory tower and learned professions were closed to them. My parents had both left high school to help put food on the family table. They were determined we’d have opportunities life denied them.

Years later, I was taken to tea with Abba Eban, an Israeli politician who spoke English with dulcet Oxford tones. I thanked him on behalf of countless Jewish children who’d risen above their origins because of him.

When he represented Israel at the United Nations, our mothers would sit in front of a television set mesmerized by his elegant delivery. “You should learn to talk like him, a beautiful English,” we’d be admonished.

Yet despite the attempt to keep Yiddish off limits, we learned it. What better incentive than to be able to decipher juicy scandals? Like how an aunt rescued her daughter from a gold digger’s clutches. (The greedy suitor must have set his sights low. That branch of the family lived in a second-floor rear apartment in Logan Square.)

We didn’t master a literary Yiddish. Our vocabulary was tilted toward reproaches and invective. It’s easiest for me to fashion a sentence ending in an exclamation point or question mark. Like: “Mach nit kein narishkayt!” (“Stop the foolishness!”) Or: “Far dos, zainen gegangen mir tsu Amerike?” (“For this, we came to America?”) That last expression was our elders’ running commentary on a younger generation’s ingratitude, misbehavior or faulty work ethic.

Our parents spoke a more well-rounded Yiddish. They had to: Their immigrant parents didn’t know much English, at best speaking a wondrous mishmash. I remember my maternal grandfather see-sawing from an English noun to a Yiddish verb, back to an English object, and so forth, creating a sentence indebted to Old and New World languages.

In a way, he had history on his side. Yiddish’s nickname is “zargon” (“jargon”), reflecting its mixed parentage as an amalgam of German, Slavic languages and Hebrew. As English entered Yiddish vocabulary in the U.S., the resulting dialect was dubbed “Yinglish.”

Living between two languages is a common denominator of the immigrant experience. The same process, for example, has taken place in families from south of the border, producing a North American variety its users call “Spanglish.”

Such is the cycle of language lost, language regained and language reinvented.

My father compressed the process into a lifetime. Toward the end, in a nursing home affiliated with a Christian denomination, he reverted to Yiddish. There he was in as Yankee surroundings as he had ever experienced. Yet he spoke Yiddish to me, the language once banned from our dinner table. Perhaps he was shy of exposing feelings to strangers. Maybe he longed for a touchstone of youth. He’d say:

“Zun.” (“Son.”)

“Yo, tate,” I’d reply. (“Yes, Dad.”)

“Zun.”

“Yo, tate.”

“The nurse, du vaist, di shiksha,” (“you know, the gentile.”)

I nodded, though they all seemed to fit that description.

“She’s …” he whispered, motioning me to come closer and switching seamlessly to English. “She’s a nice kid.”

Source: http://www.chicagotribune.com/features/chi-talk-grossman-yiddishjan12,0,6963325.story

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