The Yiddish Lesson

A tale of dead languages and clean laundry

Dalia Rosenfeld
January 28, 2022
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

Dina asked the waitress to turn down the radio. The music was too loud and had made her spill ketchup on her pants. The waitress said no, this is a diner. The radio is supposed to be loud, you’re supposed to spill ketchup on your pants. And we’re out of napkins.

Dina finished eating her fries in silence. That is, she spoke to no one, and no one spoke to her. But the radio stayed on, the music loud. Although she was not the only one in the diner that evening, she felt as if she were. She also felt that if she left a generous tip on the table, the waitress would not pick it up. Dina wondered whether anybody had ever written a song about that.

When she left the diner she did not leave a tip. In fact, she borrowed two pennies from the penny cup at the counter to help pay for her meal. Dina had not brought the right number with her this time. Most people didn’t think to carry around pennies at all anymore, but she had simply miscalculated. It would not happen again.

On her way home she stopped at the laundromat to see if her shirts were dry. An employee had warned her not to leave her laundry unattended, but Dina had taken the risk and walked across the street for a bag of french fries. If somebody wanted to steal her shirts they would see that she had worn them well. And with some effort, replacements could always be found.

When Dina walked in, the employee behind the counter pointed to her pants, still wet from the stain, and said, “That wouldn’t have happened if you had stayed here.”

Dina tested the spot with her finger to see if it was sticky. “It’s supposed to happen,” she replied.

Walking over to the machine, she saw that her shirts were where she had left them. Nobody had stolen them, and nobody ever would; Dina felt sure of that. She gathered them up and took them home.

In the center of the kitchen sat a garbage bag of rotting apple cores. Until they reached the top, Dina would not dispose of them. Her mother had been the same way and she had hated her for it, but the garbage had filled up faster then, when they were two, and still her mother let it sit. If Dina had the means, she would install a disposal unit in her sink and never buy another bag again.

Schmutz, dreck; these were the words her grandmother had used whenever she came to visit. Dina could still see her tossing soap powder like salt over her shoulders before bending down to scrub the floors. She never stayed for more than two days and always slept with the window open. Once, when Dina was a little girl, her grandmother showed her what to do with milk that had sunshine in it, and how to boil rice without letting the moon blacken the bottom of the pot. At 28, she was still learning.

Since the day her mother had explained that schmutz and dreck were bad words in Yiddish, Dina wanted to learn the good ones as well. She knew from her grandmother that Yiddish had not died a natural death, and for years Dina had blamed her mother for killing it. But now it seemed that, far from being dead, Yiddish had actually outlived her grandmother, and that an attempt was being made to revive her grandmother’s language by “reclaiming one’s roots through the Mamaloshen,” as the rabbi had written in the flyer. Dina sat with it on her lap in the kitchen and read. She did not know what "Mamaloshen” meant, but her name was on the mailing list, and that was enough to make her want to find out.

Dina had arranged to meet her friend Eleanor at the park for a few minutes before the lesson started, to toss around a Frisbee and try to persuade her to come with. Things were always more fun when you could bring a friend along. Eleanor was waiting for Dina on a bench. “I forgot the Frisbee,” she said, holding up two empty hands. “I had it between my teeth when I locked the door.”

Dina sat down next to her friend.

“Do you want to come with me to a Yiddish lesson?” she asked. If she remembered correctly, Eleanor had been president of the Latin club in high school.

At the offer, Eleanor perked up. “Today?”

Dina nodded. “Soon.”

“Is it free?”

“Free, and open to the public.”

“Will refreshments be served?” About this, Dina wasn’t sure. Certainly not those lard-fried sugar twists that Eleanor was so crazy about from Spudnuts. “I believe so,” she said, hoping for the best. “I believe it said something about refreshments in the flyer.”

Eleanor tapped at the ground with the toe of her shoe. “Nah, I don’t want to go,” she said. “I just ate.”

Temple Sinai was located in a historic part of town, on a street that boasted three other houses of worship and a drive-through branch of the First National Bank. Dina recognized the synagogue immediately, even though it shared, down to the last detail, its blueprint with the Methodist church a few doors away, and despite all the years that had passed since her last visit to the neighborhood. No other part of the street had Juneberry trees growing on it, its branches low enough for easy picking. That was the first thing Dina looked for when she approached the entrance gate, and there they were, the berries in full bloom and falling right into her hands. She ate her fill of them before entering the courtyard.

The others were sitting in a circle in the synagogue library when she arrived, two young women and two young men. If the rabbi asked where her partner was, Dina would excuse herself to go look for him. How long could it take before someone turned up? The first time she had met Joel, at a yard sale, he was learning to become a pilot. By their second meeting he had already flown to Holland and back. He even brought her chocolates in the shape of Anne Frank. Dina allowed herself one a week, until he returned with more. She hoped that would be soon.

In the synagogue library she noticed a large number of cookbooks on the shelves. Her mother had cooked from boxes, not books—macaroni and cheese flecked with orange powder, potato flakes that filled up an entire bowl when water was added. Dina knew that Jewish mothers had hundreds of recipes stored in their heads, not to mention the ones written down on slips of paper and scattered about the kitchen. Now, in the presence of so many books, she wondered what kind of mother hers had tried to be, and pulled a title from the shelf—The Jewish Appetite for Schmaltz—before joining the others in the circle.

They had been four, and now they were five. Dina didn’t like the way that made the circle look. A little misshapen.

“You’re new, aren’t you?” the woman next to her asked, hugging her knees.

“Yes,” Dina replied. “I don’t speak any Yiddish.”

The thinner of the two men scooted back to make more room. “That’s what we thought when we first came, but you’ll be surprised.”

“Tell me about it,” agreed the second woman. “It all came back in, like, an hour.”

Dina uncrossed her legs, then crossed them again. Less than an hour before she had still been at home, eating a peanut butter sandwich. If things went well, in another hour she could already start putting some of the new recipes from The Jewish Appetite for Schmaltz to use. Maybe her unemployment check would even be waiting for her when she got home.

Finally, the rabbi walked in. With so many books in the room, Dina wondered why his head wasn’t covered.

“Josh,”—he took a seat next to Dina—“what did you eat for lunch today?”

The lesson had begun.

Josh grinned, then patted his tummy. “Gefilte fish, good for the kishkes.”

Everybody laughed, and the rabbi turned to Dina.

“I see we have a new maydel with us today. What’s your name, maydele?”

Dina managed a smile; she had anticipated the question, and here it was. “Dina,” she said.

“Not anymore!” exclaimed the rabbi. “From now on you’re Dina’le, OK?”

Dina repeated it under her breath.

“Tell us, Dina’le,” the rabbi continued. “What did you have for lunch today?”

Dina’s heart raced ahead of her. She could not say peanut butter. Peanut butter did not belong in cookbooks. “Schmaltz,” she answered quickly.

To her relief, everyone laughed.

“Mazel tov!” said the rabbi.

“Mazel tov!” the others joined in.

“Is it coming back to you?” asked the first young woman.

“That’s Sarah’le,” whispered the rabbi. Dina nodded.

“Nu, who’s next?” The lesson continued. “How about you, Fliegel?” the rabbi addressed the second young man. And then, to Dina: “That means chicken wing. David’s got a lot of schmaltz on him.”

“Yesterday,” Fliegel began, “I pinched a shayne maydel’s tuchis. Then she hit me.”

“Then she gave you a klopf,” the rabbi corrected him.

“I pinched a shayne maydel’s tuchis, and then she gave me a klopf,” Fliegel tried again.

“Gevalt!” cried the rabbi.

“Gevalt!” the others repeated.

Josh raised his hand. “Was she a shvartze?”

The rabbi held up a cautionary finger. “Now wait a minute. Let’s leave the language of our grandparents out of this.”

“She wasn’t a person of color,” Fliegel corrected himself. “But what a tuchis! It drove me meshuga.”

“That’s better,” said the rabbi; and all agreed.

That evening Dina had macaroni and cheese for dinner but pretended it was gefilte fish. She couldn’t afford gefilte fish and wasn’t sure she would like it even if she could. In going through the pages of the cookbook after the lesson, she was surprised at how many of the recipes called for meat, and not just any meat, but calves’ feet and chicken innards. That must have required a lot of work. Pretending her dinner looked like gefilte fish and tasted like macaroni and cheese, she decided, made the most sense. The rabbi had given her the idea.

Although languages generally did not come easily to Dina, by the end of the first Yiddish lesson she felt nearly as fluent as the others. Her grandmother would have been proud, her mother furious. Now, after only a few more lessons, she would be able to “pass on” what she had learned, as the rabbi had put it. Since Yiddish couldn’t make a comeback without the help of lots of people—and four, even five, while a good start, still wasn’t lots—he felt that was important.

For dessert, Dina peeled an apple. When she finished she collected the skin and core, and took them outside.

That night, she dreamed with her eyes open. Dreck; schmutz; those were the words Dina remembered her grandmother by. During their first conversation, Joel had used so many words, and so fast, that by the end of the evening he had knocked over a potted plant and drunk an entire liter of milk. Dina promised cookies to go with it the next time he came.

Squinting in the dark, Dina tried to see her grandmother better. The Yiddish lesson was supposed to help her do that; the rabbi had promised. Since learning Yiddish his cholesterol had gone down and his jokes become funnier. He had told her that, and one of his jokes, too, about a rabbi and a priest on top of a mountain. Dina had never been on top of a mountain.

Before falling asleep, Dina hoped that Yiddish would do for her what it had done for the rabbi. She did not suffer from high cholesterol or know a lot of jokes, but maybe there were other changes it would bring as well. Any would be welcome.

The next day she returned to the laundromat with a bag that included her ketchup-stained pants from the diner. She could have waited until she had a bigger load, but she wanted to get rid of the ketchup before it began to stink up the apartment. It was already pretty stinky to begin with.

While waiting for the cycle to finish, Dina practiced the new Yiddish words she had learned under her breath: Kishkes, maydel, tuchis, schmaltz. She wondered whether she would recognize her new friends from the Yiddish circle if they passed her in the street, and whether they would recognize her. She would welcome such an opportunity to apply what she had learned to real life. If she ran into Fliegel, for instance, she could ask him about the shayne maydel’s tuchis, and why he had pinched it.

But that was just a joke; those weren’t really the good words she had always wanted to learn. The very thought of them made her blush as much as the rabbi’s bald head. If her grandmother were still alive Dina would ask her for a list of the good words to cancel out the bad, starting with “My name is Dina.” Such a simple sentence, it couldn’t be that hard to learn.

Kishkes, maydel, tuchis, schmaltz.” As Dina continued reviewing the lesson, the laundromat employee called her to the counter. “If you’re going to talk, then not to yourself,” she said. “That freaks me out.”

“I’m learning a new language,” Dina explained.

“Oh, yeah?”

Dina shook her head. “A dead one,” she corrected herself.

The employee narrowed her eyes. “That freaks me out even more.”

By the time Dina’s pants were done, she realized she was a quarter short for the dryer. Two quarters would suck the cold out of the clothes, but not get them dry. She’d rather save them both for a coffee across the street and hang her pants over the shower rod at home.

Stuffing the wet load into her bag, she saw a pale orange spot rise to the top. So it hadn’t come out; the schmutz was still there. If it wasn’t too expensive, she would buy a stronger detergent next time. Maybe one day she would even have a washing machine of her own. In her grandmother’s time everyone still did things by hand, the old-fashioned way, scrubbing and scrubbing until the spots came out. There were no quick fixes back then.

At the next lesson Dina would ask the rabbi what he thought about the old days, and whether things had changed for the better. It was a big question, but she would explain that she was not opposed to washing machines as long as they made her clothes clean. Clean, and not dirty. She was sure he would understand the distinction.

Dalia Rosenfeld, the author of the collection of short stories, The Worlds We Think We Know, was named a finalist for the 2019 Sami Rohr Prize in Jewish Literature.