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Yiddish in a Jiffy, in Omaha, Nebraska

As an experiment, I immersed myself in the Yiddish language for three months to see how much I could learn

by
Max Sparber
April 28, 2016

I grew up hearing a little Yiddish, mostly from my father, who used it exclusively to scream at bad drivers. “Schmuck!” he’d cry at a tailgater; “Putz!” he’d scream at a speeder. But other than that, I was not exposed to the secular language of European Jewry growing up in my secular European Jewish household in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Even in a Jewish high school, and while pursuing a Jewish studies degree in college, where Yiddish was not taught, I was not privy to the language. Hebrew, yes. Aramaic, some, yes, for Talmudic studies. I even had a teacher obsessed with gematria, the mystical numerology of the Jews. But the only Yiddish I heard outside of my father’s road rage was infrequent, not part of the curriculum, and common: Shlep, kvell, meshugenah.

Once, I set up a short-lived Yiddish program through my campus Hillel, where we mostly learned from a strange book called The Yiddish Teacher by H.E. Goldin, in which every sentence sounds like this: “Every day she walks in the woods and weeps.” This was Yiddish for an Expressionist stage play, but not for life.

I’ve always felt badly about this, about my lack of Yiddish knowledge. The language had a moment when it flourished before World War II, and then was largely abandoned afterwards. Another loss for European Jewry, who had already lost everything. And so I’ve always wanted to learn the language, to carry on, in some sense, a torch.

This is not easy to do in the Midwest, especially in Omaha, Nebraska, where it seems, there’s not much opportunity for a Yiddish education. That is, at least compared to New York City, where it is possible to find Yiddishists right off the F train.

Recently, I got sick of my excuses and, wanting a quick fix I turned to—where else?—the Internet, to learn Yiddish once and for all. Soon enough, I stumbled across an online community of language learners who discuss various techniques for Yiddish self-education. Many of them subscribe to a handful of self-proclaimed web-based “language gurus,” who promise to teach foreign languages quickly, and well.

Were I a linguist, I’d probably have sneered. But I didn’t. I believed.

Most of the online language programs I came across base their educational systems on the process of plugging thousands of frequently used words into a flashcard program, and then memorizing them, such as Anki, which sorts cards by how well you remember them, speeding up learning. I also drew largely from Gabriel Wyner’s “Fluent Forever” website, as well as a program run by an Irish fellow named Benny Lewis, who even gives a timeline for language-learning that’s embedded in the name of his webpage and subsequent book, Fluent in 3 Months. This gave me an idea for a timeline and purpose: How much Yiddish could I learn in three months?

I thought it’d impossible to become fluent in another language in three months. Together, these programs couldn’t possibly be sophisticated enough to tackle the awesome complexity of the Yiddish language, right? But I figured that, at the very least, I’d understand more Yiddish than I do now.

I decided to do everything on my cell phone because I always have it with me. I wanted to create around me a virtual Hester Street, the Lower East Side thoroughfare that was once so associated with immigrant Yiddish speakers that Joan Micklin Silver named her 1975 film about turn-of-the-century immigrant Jews after it.

In addition to Anki, and Wyner and Lewis’s educational websites, I filled my life with Yiddish songs, Yiddish books downloaded from YIVO, and language programs such as Keyman, which allows you to type in Yiddish, and Audible.com, which has several Yiddish language programs available for download. I also used Google Translate to find new words, which almost worked, save for the fact that Google seems to believe every Yiddish noun is feminine.

I quickly gained new vocabulary, but had almost no way to use them. I could point at a knife and say “messer,” but could not tell someone I needed a knife. I knew my dog was a hunt and that he was gut, but I couldn’t combine the two words to praise him. I added some sentences to my flashcards, borrowed from books of Yiddish sayings. I quickly learned three ways to tell someone to die in a fire, but, again, it was hard to find day-to-day applications. The whole Yiddish world felt like a collection of disconnected words and phrases, and, as the months went by, my frustration grew.

However, this seems to only apply to the speaking portion of my learning process. At the same time, as I listened to or read Yiddish, I recognized more and more. I could make out the shape of a sentence. I started to recognize which words were nouns or adjectives or verbs, even if I didn’t understand them. Yiddish wasn’t comprehensible, but neither was it shapeless; its shape kept getting clearer and clearer.

Recently I completed the three-months course of study, memorizing 1,000 words, which the Benny Lewis program assures me is enough to start being able to understand a language. When I read headlines from the Yiddish Forward, I find I can understand about 80 percent of what I read—although the words I miss are usually the ones that provide important context.( One recent headline suggested that a story would be about Jewish cantors and jazz, but I wasn’t yet good enough to know that the story was about the influence of jazz on cantorial music. I got the gist, but not the details.)

When I listen to Jewish songs, like the folk song “Bulbes,” I may not understand all the lyrics. But, like a blurry image that has started to come into focus, I see its general contours—I know this is a song about potatoes, and I know the singer eats them every day of the week. I have a general sense of the monotony experienced by the singer, and am shocked to discover the humor in it. “Saturday is a novelty,” the lyrics go, as best I understand them, “potato kugele.”

I’m nowhere near fluent, of course, but for an American Jew in Omaha, I speak more Yiddish than I should. It’s just Omaha on the outside anyway. In my head, through my cell phone’s ear buds, it’s Hester Street, and I am starting to understand. And I can’t wait until the next time I am in a car with my father, to join in on the fun.

Max Sparber is a playwright and arts journalist from Minneapolis, MN, who currently resides in Omaha, NE. You can read more about his adventures with Yiddish on his blog, Dress British Think Yiddish.

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