Growing up in New Jersey and New York in the early 2000s, I thought Yiddish was the opposite of cool or subversive or sexy. I actively disliked its Germanic sound and associated it with all things fogy. Like many biases, this one was at least partly inherited: My great-grandmother’s Yiddish-accented Russian had once been parodied to great comedic effect by her grandchildren—my mother and aunt—who considered spoken Yiddish to be nothing short of hilarious. This was in Ukraine, where Yiddish language had once thrived—even briefly enjoying official language status in the days of the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic (1917-1921). After WWII and the Holocaust, Yiddish culture was irreparably damaged, and Soviet Jews abandoned their heritage language both to protect themselves from anti-Semitism and to better assimilate into Soviet society. Thus, to my mother and aunt, my great-grandmother’s accent was a relic, subject to scrutiny by urban Jews who prided themselves in speaking proper Russian. (After my great-grandmother’s death, my mother arrived in New York and was teased by fellow Soviet immigrants for speaking Russian with a Ukrainian accent. The irony spans generations.)
Once in the States, my mother’s parents reserved Yiddish for rendering information unintelligible to us grandchildren, the American kindelah. They employed it as a secret language, as I now do Russian in public spaces outside of Brighton Beach. Their spoken language was a hodgepodge of Russian Yiddishisms, whereas mine features English words crassly grafted with Russian syntax. Once again, the irony is not lost. Russian has effectively supplanted the mameloshn of my ancestors, becoming—to quote David Shneer—the “global lingua franca” of this diaspora (or at least, one among many). My family’s Yiddish heritage—unfortunately associated with Old World backwardness and decay—barely survived the Holocaust and Sovietization, only to be abandoned in the later 20th century and sublimated into Zionism. The fact that my mother still understands some Yiddish is kind of a miracle. Unfortunately, none of it trickled down to me.
Or did it?
Years ago, when my life took an unexpected turn, I started singing Eastern European folk music for fun. I became drawn to folk tunes—Russian, Ukrainian, Romani, and Yiddish folk tunes—for reasons I still have trouble articulating. As the world around me seemingly spun out of control, inching ever closer to dystopia characterized by phone addiction, consumerism, and climate catastrophe, I clung to this pastime as a means of escape. Traditional music provided an outlet from the 21st-century malaise ailing a great many of my peers. Subsequently, through my nascent exploration of klezmer and Yiddish song, I met numerous young Yiddishists who are active in leftist circles: millennials who channel rhetoric of the Bund and other Jewish socialist movements while rejecting the Zionism of their counterparts.
As someone with direct family ties to Israel, it was difficult to not feel somewhat alienated in these spaces. And yet, as a first-generation American grasping for understanding of my heritage—particularly the unique strand of secular Jewish heritage that Anna Shternshis describes in her book Soviet and Kosher—I became intrigued by ideas of the early 20th-century Jewish Folkspartei, which strove for cultural autonomy in the diaspora while emphasizing Yiddish continuity. And so, my Yiddishphobia faded a little. Not enough for me to dedicate time to learning the language, but a little. A bissele.
Tablet columnist Rokhl Kafrissen wrote in a recent Haaretz op-ed that “transposition of pre-war Yiddish socialist poetics” enables one to identify Jewishly while “remaining distanced from the embarrassments of the past.” I admit that the deeper into Yiddish culture I dive, the more captivated I become by the past—or rather, romanticized versions of it. It is tempting, reading the translated fiction of Sholem Aleichem, I.B. Singer, and others—as well as nonfiction about Yiddish’s golden age—to idealize the past and speculate what would have been, had the Holocaust not nearly annihilated Yiddish-speaking culture, and the Soviets not liquidated all Yiddish language schools as part of their anti-Semitic campaign under Stalin. To imagine an alternate, Yiddish-positive reality is a hopeful act; to actualize this reality with Yiddish cultural education is a radical one.
Millennial Jews are still feeling the aftershock of mid 20th-century chaos in ways that are not immediately obvious, coping with inherited trauma while bracing ourselves for future catastrophe. I cope by examining my heritage more closely; for example, by fruitlessly mining genetic genealogy websites for hints about my family origins (spoiler alert: We’re Ashkenazic Jews). This feels very self-indulgent and navel-gazey and hasn’t gotten me very far. But reading I. B. Singer’s stories about life in the shtetl; looking at the illustrated memories of Mayer Kirshenblatt in They Called Me Mayer July, by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett; and most of all, singing folks songs—in the multitude of languages that my ancestors doubtlessly spoke or were adjacent to—these small acts bring me great spiritual joy.
When I was a child, my grandfather would rock me to sleep singing an old Soviet song that he learned in his youth; a popular dance tune from the 1920s called “Krutitsya Vertitsya Shar Goluboy” (The Blue Balloon is Whirling). The song is sung by a soldier who is in love with a young woman, and searches for her street address while the blue balloon whirls overhead. The song stuck with me long after my grandfather’s passing, and resurfaced in my memory around the time I started singing old tunes. Through a tip from a couple of Yiddishist friends, I learned that a Yiddish version of the song existed, called “Vu Iz Dos Gesele,” translated as “where is the little street.” And so—my friends surmised—the Yiddish version predated the Russian. (Whether or not this is true, I’ve yet to confirm.)
Later, while reading Soviet and Kosher, I learned that another version of that song existed, with Yiddish lyrics by an anonymous author trying to mock the Soviet establishment. These lyrics were unpublished and unofficial. Were it not for the research efforts of scholars like Shternshis, they would have been relegated to the dustbin of history. Instead, I get to marvel at them. Like so much of history, the song my grandfather sang is a palimpsest of stories, one overlaying the next. I am humbled and thrilled to uncover these stories, as well as countless others, in my ongoing Yiddish journey.
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Samantha Shokin is a writer and musician based in Brooklyn.