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How Learning German Brought Me Home

My brother and I took different religious paths as adults, until studying different languages brought us back together

by
Tess Solomon
August 26, 2020
Kurt Hoffman
Kurt Hoffman
Kurt Hoffman
Kurt Hoffman

After I graduated high school in 2016, I visited Berlin for three days. I was traveling with a friend, trying to experience some of our newfound adulthood, and the city was everything that excited me at 18. As I encountered it, Berlin could be painted in contrasting colors, the reds and oranges of the graffiti on the Wall against the white sky overhead, the interplay serious, inscrutable. By night, the city glowed. My sense was that it overflowed with creativity, that artists, designers, photographers congregated in neighborhoods I visited, that there were galleries to wander into everywhere. The people my friend and I met by chance seemed like exactly the people I had always wanted to know. The streets were historic in so many layers that the city felt like it was constantly being remade, and I felt that opportunity and that freedom viscerally.

Looking back, I think I was seeking out that sensation. At the time, I had just graduated from a modern Orthodox Jewish high school. My family went to synagogue every Shabbat, and we kept kosher. We elected to be practically limited in most areas of our lives, including how we spent our money, allocated our time, and chose to eat. These limitations were taken to their furthest extreme by my younger brother; since he was 10, he has absolutely not looked at the world with any sense of wonder and thought about how wide open it was to him. In his eyes, modern Orthodoxy was not the balanced approach to heritage and modernity that it was to my parents. Rather, it was an adulterated version of the “real thing.” And so, he began his journey to the religious right. When he graduated from high school, he went straight to yeshiva, his black suits, white shirts, and collection of the signature Borsalino hats in the trunk of my parents’ car.

For the duration of my teenage years, then, I stared in bewilderment at this instantiation of my family’s tradition at its most fundamentalist. I found those views hopelessly, frustratingly closed off and uninspired. I struggled to understand my brother and deeply resented being inconvenienced by his new and proliferating needs. I wanted to be as far away from him as possible.

Thus, my strong response to that twinkling sense of unmitigated opportunity that I felt while in Berlin was reactive. In that hazardous perch at the liberal edges of modern Orthodoxy, I was restless. The feeling was subtle: It was not a desire to break the boundaries that had been set for me, exactly. Instead, I wanted to prove from within them that I was not bound by anything at all, that freedom and inspiration were fully available to me, even though I subscribed to the limitations I had grown up with. I wanted to be as far away from my brother’s version of Judaism as possible, and so I was predisposed to find an inspiration that could best represent my opposition.

I decided, after just three days in Berlin, that I wanted to learn German.

My on-the-spot decision to learn German was not a concrete plan, but it was not a passing fancy, either. The city made an astonishingly lasting impact. Following the visit, my impressions crystalized comfortably into fantastic conjectures. I decided that Berlin was the physical portal into educated cosmopolitanism, and German the correlative intellectual one. The language, I thought, would lead to an understanding of a literature and philosophy that seemed decidedly both more troubled and more edgy than that of the French I had studied in high school, which I had come to think of as romantic and somehow ornate. These were my thoughts and feelings at 18—and they were, in all of the important ways, juvenile. The notions have matured, I like to think, as language and place have come down to earth, to the realities of struggling through introductory lessons and difficult texts in college courses. What did not mature, for a long time, was my belief that German, and everything I had foisted upon it, would take me far away from my brother and everything he believed.

There was, of course, a tension in choosing to be inspired by Germany as a Jewish person in postwar America. Though we are not descended from Holocaust survivors, German was a confusing proposition to my parents. There remains a tacit, instinctive suspicion of the country and the language that extends well beyond survivors and resides, quiet but implacable, in the Jewish culture I know. It mostly manifests itself, as far as I can tell, in a kind of collective decision to prefer not to purchase German cars. Internally, though, I was able to brush the tension aside, first because I had never felt that the discomfort with the language as a whole was logically justified, and second because academically, even at the beginning, I was interested in German in part because of, and not despite, its 20th-century history. I was not attempting to oppose my Jewish identity in this historical sense. I was only trying to do so in the current, subjective sense relating to my feeling of limitation within it and the escape for those restrictions that I thought German could provide.

The punchline, then, is that my brother came home from yeshiva with a new speech habit of saying something that sounded to me like “Anshuldigs,” and it took maybe a month of German class to understand he was saying something related to Entschuldigung, the modern German word for “excuse me” or “I’m sorry.” What sounded like “Vas tus to” was was tust du, what are you doing, and “dorthin” meant there, over there, in that direction. Other phrases or new speech tics of his began to make sense. Though the pronunciation is often unrecognizable to me, and the grammar is different, I can begin to put his words together once he tells me what he means. I was even able to begin filling in some of the other staples from my childhood that I had known in practice but not in any literal sense. “Oy vey iz mir fell into place: Weh ist mir means, in German, “it is painful to me.”

Neither of my parents speaks Yiddish, and the Yiddish words we heard or spoke at home, living in New York and as Ashkenazi Jews, were more of a cultural legacy than a linguistic one. Nearing the end of his third year of yeshiva, though, my brother understands Lithuanian Yiddish relevant to his learning more or less fluently. It is not the language of life in his yeshiva, the way it is in some Hasidic communities, but it is the language of upper-level study there, and it permeates every interaction.

It makes perfect historical and linguistic sense that I should be able to somewhat understand what my brother is saying in Yiddish: Both languages descend from High German and share some vocabulary. Yiddish also incorporates words from Hebrew, which I speak. Yet the fact was somehow surprising to me because I had managed, in trying to move as far away from him as possible, to give us an entirely new means of communication. My quest outward, away from the limitation inherent in Jewish religious life, had strangely brought me full circle, by giving me access to my Haredi brother and, beyond that, to centuries of Ashkenazi Jewish history.

That my brother and I can now piece together a conversation in two historically related languages has in some ways given new life to our relationship. Those small moments of communication that no one else around us can understand feel as naturally treasured as the secrets younger children tell in a blanket fort. And so, I am simultaneously disappointed that German could not be what I wanted it to be and recognize the humor in the whole situation: my airs and notions, completely misplaced. I was astonished to realize that, while thinking I was moving outward, I had, in this one sense, fallen backward and inward, into the most basic structures of my Jewish heritage and identity. And it became clear to me that understanding pieces of my brother’s Yiddish was pure serendipity.

That feeling of fortuity has extended beyond my ability to communicate with him. I am in awe of the world of Yiddish that German has begun to open up for me. I have lately been finding poetry and folk stories online, read out loud. The style of storytelling, the gesticulations, the humor, the timing of a sentence, are elements of my culture that I could not have pinpointed before but that I know well. I can follow some of them even when I am not reading subtitles, especially if I play them at a slow speed. In one, my favorite, a 1938 poem called “Good Night, World,” the author Jacob Glatstein accuses the world of hypocrisy and anti-Semitism, and chooses to return to the Jewish community. I live in a vastly different world than Glatstein did when he decided to devote his life entirely to Yiddish-language literature, and I have no analogous ambitions. But his mix of resignation and agency, or turning inward and finding joy in that, resonates. “Good night,” he writes. “It’s all yours, world. I disown/My liberation.” Or, more to the point: “I kiss you, tangled strands of Jewish life. Within me weeps the joy of coming home.”

Tess Solomon is a rising senior at Princeton University studying English and minoring in German.

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