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My New Joy of Yiddish

How a language that once made me feel left out now makes me feel like a part of something bigger

by
Amy Schreibman Walter
July 14, 2021
Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images
Lower East Side, 1986Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images

Growing up near Fort Lauderdale in the 1980s, I heard Yiddish being spoken, but I understood from a young age that it wasn’t my language. My grandparents spoke it to each other and to their friends, mostly when they didn’t want others to know what was being discussed. It was for hushed conversations, for topics that were not destined for the ears of me, the kind. My grandparents invested no time in teaching the language of their childhood to me—nor had they taught my parents. A language from a time and place far from my own, Yiddish gave them a secret power, as far as I was concerned. It gave them secrets I couldn’t share. Yiddish was never something that was mine. Or so I thought.

“Grandma, what are you talking about?” I would plead for answers, pulling on my grandmother’s polyester housedress.“Bubbeleh, shoo, go play,” she’d reply. My great-grandparents, Eastern European immigrants who died before I was born, spoke Yiddish as their mameloshn (mother tongue). When I was a teenager, I asked my grandma about her parents. She told me that they lived in tenements in New York City in the early 1900s, that they worked tirelessly to learn English so that they could fit into American life more seamlessly. My mother, who knew her grandparents, tells me that their immigrant history was audible in their accents even as they spoke English.

Though my mother didn’t learn Yiddish in any formal way, she picked up a lot of words and expressions (mostly exclamations and terms of affection), just by being around my grandparents. My father died when I was a toddler, but my mother uses Yiddish words and expressions more than your average Jewish person, I think. As a child in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, she was afforded a great deal of overheard Yiddish—around the neighborhood and in the local Jewish nosh spots like Nathan’s on the Coney Island boardwalk. But she never learned the language formally, so she never passed it down formally, either. Like my mother, I could only pick up what I overheard.

My grandparents and I were regulars at Wolfie’s Deli in Miami Beach; I recall the conversations, some of them in Yiddish, and the noise in that place. I remember the tattoos branded onto the arms of several of my grandparents’ friends. I remember being unable to look away, not knowing. I remember all of the not knowing, my childhood curiosity as we devoured our huge kneidels from even bigger soup bowls, my grandma calling me Amyla, my grandfather pinching my cheeks and telling me I was his ziskeyt (sweetness).

I remember a whole generation of bubbes and zaydes sitting by the kidney-shaped pool in their vast retirement village, basking in the sun and in their Yiddish. I remember being somebody’s bubbeleh. And I remember the exclamations: “Oy Vey!” “Oy Gevalt!”Ay yay yay!” and “Gesundheit!” My childhood and adolescence were full of gesundheits, mostly uttered by my grandma (I still think of her when I sneeze).

As a teenager, I began to deepen my knowledge about the world my great-grandparents had left behind when they came to America. As I learned more of my family’s unique history, as well as the recent history of the Jews, my grandparents’ Yiddish conversations would sometimes appear at the forefront of my mind—as a distant, frustrating memory, one tinged with the leathery, tanned warm arms of grandparent hugs.

In the 1990s, at high school in England, I studied German, and on a weeklong trip to Berlin, visited the Jewish quarter of the old East Berlin. The Berlin Wall had fallen just a few years before we visited, and the city was still in flux. At some level, unconscious perhaps, I had chosen German as my foreign language because it provided a partial pathway, at least, toward something which had previously been inaccessible to me: the language of my familial past. With a basic grasp of German, Yiddish starts to become just a bit less mysterious.

The summer that I turned 19, my great-aunts Ida and Miriam, who were in their 70s then, took me on a walking tour of “their” Lower East Side of Manhattan. We ate the food of my childhood, foods with Yiddish names: bagels and bialys and blintzes, rugelach and babka and knishes. It was then, on the cusp of adulthood, that I started to see Yiddish differently. Yiddish was, I realized, a touchstone for me—an anchor, grounding me firmly in a sea of rich cultural Jewishness. It always had been. As a secular Jew, Yiddish was deeply entangled within my upbringing. Whether it was in food or in terms of affection, it had always been there, and it had actually always been mine. Sitting across the table in Yonah Schimmel’s, sharing kasha knishes with my beloved aunts, Yiddish felt not so secret anymore.

Ida and Miriam introduced me to the Tenement Museum in New York City, a place that had a real impact on me. I recall reading on a sign there that before WWII, there were approximately 12 million Yiddish speakers worldwide. By the 1990s that figure had dropped to around 1.5 million, and now the estimate is about 500,000. Struck by the sadness of a language that seemed to be quickly dying, I felt nostalgic for a past I hadn’t known.

My great-aunts seemed to find joy in teaching me Yiddish words and expressions, just as they loved taking me to places in New York City that had resonance for us as a Jewish family. Once I was back home in the U.K., my mother told me how glad she was that I was taking full advantage of all that Ida and Miriam could teach me about the language, our culture, and our family history; she felt that they knew so much more than she did about these things and was delighted (as I was) that I had forged such a strong connection with these learned matriarchs.

In my 20s, I learned the Yiddish insults, first-hand: the schmucks and the schnorrers. A bevy of insults come to mind as I remember the emphatic disdain that my great aunts had toward some of my boyfriends—and a few of my friends, too. When I was waiting for a boyfriend to get back to me about a vacation we had discussed taking together, Ida said to me a phrase that I kept in my mind throughout my single years. “Nit Kain Entfer Iz Oich An Entfer”—no answer is also an answer. Ida was a wise woman.

I moved to Brooklyn when I was 25; I stayed for half a decade. As a Brooklyn resident, I noticed Yiddish on menus, and I heard it on the subway. I used it more in my speech than I had ever before; it felt to me to be part of a New York language. Jewish or not, everyone was schlepping on the subway. On my occasional jaunts through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, I saw the language living as it must have lived for my relatives in Europe. The longer I lived in New York, the more that Yiddish began to lose its mystery. I read books about the shtetls of the past and learned more about where my ancestors had come from.

Since leaving New York and returning to London, my experience with Yiddish has been similar to what it was in New York City: I use what is known as ludic Yiddish, and I use it most often when I’m with family. Ludic means playful, spontaneous, mischievous. Yiddish adds color and some nostalgia to my English, and I like it that way. As Leo Rosten wrote in The New Joys of Yiddish, “Yiddish reflects the variety and vitality of life, the special culture of the Jews, the distinctive style of thought—and it has enhanced the English we use today. It is steeped in sentiment; it is sluiced with sarcasm. It loves the ruminative, because it rests on a rueful past.”

I thought in earnest, on and off over the years, about taking a Yiddish class. However, as a full-time teacher, and with two young children at home, a class would need to wait until my life was a little less busy.

During the summer of 2018, I was standing in the gift shop at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan, thumbing through a children’s picture book called Five Little Gefiltes. It was then that I had another realization about Yiddish. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized how important it was to me that Yiddish be a part of my new chapter, just as it had been a part of my previous ones. Engaged to a wonderful mensch of a man and about to become a stepmother, this was my first time seeing the book, and it didn’t take long for me to decide that I had to buy the book for my soon to be stepdaughter, who was just 3 then. The Yiddish words in this little book jumped off the page to me, poetic and playful. They made me smile.

I picked up a copy of Five Little Gefiltes, and along with The New Joys of Yiddish, headed for the cash register. This unassuming children’s book would be a way for me to share my love of Yiddish words and phrases with the youngest member of my new family. I didn’t even know I was searching for such a book until it found me that summer afternoon on the Upper East Side. Now that I am a mother to both Ruby and my son, Max (currently a toddler), my desire to bring Yiddish into my home has become even stronger. I call Max my bubbeleh or my boychik (a word I learned from my husband) at least five times a day. Ruby asks for kneidels with her soup and just the other day she wondered aloud: “What’s a rugelach, anyway?” I think my grandparents might be kvelling if they knew how often I sprinkle Yiddish words into my everyday conversation.

I like that Ruby asks questions about the Yiddish words that she hears. Having a connection—even to a few words here and there, just as I did—feels important. As a family we tour historic synagogues when we travel, and we visit the Jewish museum in any city we happen to be visiting. I want to encourage curiosity in my children about our Jewish ancestry and culture, and about Yiddish, too.

When I use the terms of endearment, the exclamations, and even the insults that I heard in my youth, I can feel my grandparents with me again: Using Yiddish words at home feels like a kind of love letter to them. I hope that Ruby and Max will one day recall the Yiddish words of their own childhood, and that those memories will spark them into speaking Yiddish in their own homes, too.

Amy Schreibman Walter is a writer and teacher living in London. Follow her @amyswalter

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