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Mother Tongue

Jacqueline Osherow
February 24, 2009

“I can’t believe that’s the first thing I saw in Antwerp,” said my 14-year-old daughter, Mollie, staring out the car window. I’d been engaged in small talk with our hosts from PEN Flanders, who were putting us up in their schrijversflat so that I could try to carry out my plan of writing a poem about living Yiddish. I’d written any number of poems about Yiddish as a dead language, and couldn’t imagine what it might be like to write something about experiencing my grandparents’ native tongue as alive and well—supposedly, it was the first language of 80 percent of Antwerp’s Jews.

“What?” I asked my daughter.

“You didn’t see it?”

“No, what didn’t I see?”

She gave me one of her what-is-the-point-of-your-going-anywhere looks. “Jews,” she said. “On bikes.”

As if on cue, along came a black-hatted bicyclist—beard, black coat, peyes, and tzitzit flying, a plastic bag or two dangling from his handlebars. As we would learn, religious Jews on bikes are a common sight in Antwerp, particularly around the train station, in the diamond district. Even we stopped doing double-takes—after a couple of days, the guy on the bike had to be speaking Yiddish into a cell phone for me to bother turning my head.

“It’s like a shtetl,” I’d been told by my cousin Beka, half sister of my Antwerp cousin Aryeh, who deals—what else?—in diamonds. Beka was born in a real shtetl: my grandmother’s in Bukovina; she was a little mystified by the fact that this was precisely what drew me to Antwerp. I’d thought there were no shtetls left in the world, that no Yiddish was spoken in Europe. Or really anywhere, for that matter. The language I’d overheard spoken on 47th Street in Manhattan didn’t count—I can understand it, which means it’s a fairly impoverished version of the language.

While my religious cousins all speak five languages (French, Flemish, Hebrew, Yiddish, and English), the language they speak among themselves is not Yiddish, but French. Still, I heard snippets of Yiddish on the streets when I was walking to their house for Shabbos, which had completely transformed the neighborhood. Everyone walking was dressed up; some little kids were wearing miniature shtreimels, and there were siblings wearing every imaginable size of the same checkered shirt and perfectly pressed trousers, the same pleated plaid dress. At shul, there was one woman I referred to as Jackie Kennedy, in a fabulous silk outfit with matching hat. How she walked any distance in her high-heeled shoes is beyond me.

I didn’t spend all my time in Antwerp eavesdropping in Jewish neighborhoods. It was, after all, Rubens’ birthplace, full of the greatest examples of his art, as well as that of a few of my other favorites, the so-called Flemish Primitives. And I couldn’t get enough of the streets and squares that look like oversize versions of the backgrounds in those same paintings, occasionally interrupted by Art Nouveau. One building—once owned by a shipping magnate?—had a boat-shaped balcony, and another, “The Palace of the People,” was decorated with sculptures and mosaics of muscular workers who seemed to hold up the top floors. Antwerp is just the sort of city I love, one whose entire center can be encompassed on foot. We couldn’t get enough of certain shop windows: full of postmodern bridal gowns, amazing hats, not to mention the incomparable Pierre Marcolini chocolate. Needless to say, my Antwerp relatives won’t eat it. It’s not kosher, much less Chalav Yisrael.

Perhaps in self-defense, the Antwerp Jews do have Kleinbatt’s, which comes up in the first three minutes of any conversation with an Antwerp Jew: “Have you been to Kleinblatt’s? Do you know about Kleinblatt’s?” Even the Chabad rebbetzin back home in Salt Lake City knows all about the great kosher bakery in Antwerp. The line goes around the block on Sunday mornings, made up of Jews and non-Jews alike. Despite my trousers, a bewigged woman pushing a stroller beamed at me when I asked her directions. “You’ll find wonderful cakes there,” she said.

She was right, but I had to go to a different bakery for the bowtie kichels I never thought much of in my childhood, but now adore with a Proustian fervor; they taste like nothing so much as a sugary air, and have a crunchy but nonetheless weightless texture, one that cries out for a glass (preferably one that was once a jam jar) of Swee-Touch-Nee tea with a slice of lemon. As I entered, I heard the woman behind the counter say to the young boy she was serving, “Nokh epes?”—“Anything else?”—and I was filled with joy.

Still, Yiddish wasn’t by any means ubiquitous. Yarmulke-clad boys on playgrounds screamed, “Kill the evil ones!” in Hebrew, banging their sticks against a tree; the girls admired each other’s long-sleeved, long-skirted outfits in French, English, and Hebrew as well as Yiddish. I didn’t hear a dvar torah in Yiddish, only in Hebrew, though admittedly I went only to the larger synagogues—places teeming with people who, after the services, switched languages depending on whom they were greeting. Yiddish was sprinkled in, certainly, but it didn’t come across as the singular spoken language.

So how was I going to write a poem about living Yiddish? It being spoken in a dust-coated, crowded store full of musty books that I entered in search of a “prayer for a safe journey” key chain (if you saw me drive, you’d understand) was evidence of nothing. One can’t imagine a store like that in any other language; it hardly qualified as “living.” The owner seemed to see me as an opportunity to get rid of things: he ignored my request for a keychain, suggesting instead some dog-eared magazines about how to be a proper Jewish wife; when I wasn’t interested, he proposed bumper stickers announcing the coming of the Messiah.

Back on the street, my daughter and I heard Hebrew, not Yiddish, shouted into cell phones. We went to the park: Hebrew and French. Then we decided to give up on Yiddish for the day. It was a rare sunny afternoon, and someone had suggested that we cross the river for a view of Antwerp’s modest skyline. My daughter noticed a black-hatted guy sitting alone on a bench, with two empty strollers beside him. We followed his line of vision to a playground populated by little boys in yarmulkes and girls in long skirts.

As we approached, we began to hear it: children’s voices squealing in high-pitched Yiddish. They were chasing each other in Yiddish, accusing each other in Yiddish, demanding snacks in Yiddish. Their mothers were laughing and gossiping in Yiddish, using the telltale stage whispers that my mother always reserved for the names of diseases in Yiddish. They were even ignoring their children in Yiddish.

And I—who had spent weeks searching for exactly this—was completely nonplussed. I don’t think I quite understood that this language could be used on a playground. For all my explorations and disappointments, I hadn’t really shaken off my generation’s notion that Yiddish was the exclusive province of the elderly. I hadn’t realized until that moment on the playground what it means for a language to be alive.