Yiddish: The secret handshake
Remembering a rich culture
I grew up in Wynnewood, a suburb of Philadelphia, but it might as well have been Minsk. Every day, after my father left for work in the city, Mom shrugged off her English, as if it were an itchy sweater, and slipped back into Yiddish. Not to speak with me, but to engage in marathon phone conversations with her mother, sisters and friends.
Ironically, my mother was not an immigrant. She was born in Philadelphia but grew up in a Jewish section of the city where English was more of an option than a necessity. As a result, at the age of 5, Mom’s grasp of English was so tenuous she had to repeat kindergarten.
Although I was purposefully excluded from my linguistic heritage, Yiddish, with its plaintive cadence and shrieks of laughter, was the soundtrack of my childhood. I played Shoots and Ladders and braided doll’s hair to a constant refrain of gevalts and oy veys. When I was sad, Mom told me not to “torture” my neshuma (soul), which I envisioned as a furry little animal. When I was happy, she proclaimed me to be “shane vie da velt,” as beautiful as the world.
As any parent knows, kids have an instinctive curiosity about anything that is forbidden. The cake saved for company, the porcelain figurine that is not a “toy,” the schoolmate labeled a troublemaker. So, naturally, the more I was shut out of my mother’s native tongue, the more closely I listened. The first Yiddish phrase I managed to decipher, around the age of 8, was the one overheard most often. Schvaig der kinders du. “Quiet, the kid is here.”
This phrase was repeated so frequently during weekend visits to my grandmother’s house, a cocker spaniel could’ve figured it out. Unable to follow the adults’ conversation further, I gleaned from their tone that Yiddish was the language of marital discord, unspeakable diseases, dirty jokes and curses. More than anything else, it was the language of secrets, the locked door I was always trying to pry open. By the time I graduated high school, I had a vocabulary of over a hundred Yiddish words, but no idea how to form a sentence. At the same time, I was obligated to learn a foreign language in school. If having a working knowledge of Spanish, French or German was an asset, why was Yiddish taboo?
Eventually, I came to understand that Yiddish was not passed on to my generation because of its association with poverty and the Old Country. My Yiddish-speaking grandmother was illiterate and wore shmatas; my English-speaking grandmother wore pricey dresses from Bonwit’s and ran a pharmacy. I also sensed an unspoken fear. Yiddish was the language of persecution, death camps, entire communities gone up in smoke. Cutting my generation off from the language of our ancestors was considered a moral imperative of assimilation. In America, you can pray as a Jew, eat as a Jew, celebrate as a Jew. But you must never speak as a Jew. To do so would draw unnecessary attention to our inherent difference from our neighbors. Hence, cowboy hats replaced yarmulkes.
And yet, whenever and wherever Jews congregate, whether at Ben & Irv’s Deli in Huntingdon Valley, Murray’s in Bala or on the beach in Margate, Yiddish continues to flavor conversations like a spice used only for special dishes. While my contemporaries may not be able to indulge in the lengthy diatribes of previous generations, there is a certain glee in inserting bubkas, gonif or alta cocker into conversation. In this regard, Yiddish has become a secret handshake, a way of establishing connection with strangers on airplanes or in the dressing room at Marshall’s. (I confess to using Yiddish to get a better price on slipcovers and a fresher slice of lox.)
Many Yiddish expressions, especially curses, fall into the category of untranslatable. It wasn’t until I read Talk Dirty Yiddish by Rabbi Ilene Schneider of Marlton, New Jersey, that I understood what my mother was actually saying in moments of exasperation at us kids. You should grow like an onion with your head in the dirt and your feet in the air! You should be a chandelier, hang by day and burn by night! And my personal favorite: Shit in your hat and use it for curls! Yiddish isn’t merely colorful; it is the linguistic Pantone.
And yet, attitudes toward Yiddish remain ambivalent. Late night TV hosts, albeit Christian, sprinkle it into their monologues so liberally that putz and shvontz have become the lingua franca in Des Moines. At the same time, religious Jewish communities in Brooklyn and the Catskills, where Yiddish is still the primary language, are held suspect and considered an anachronism. As if to say, “Shah shah, don’t draw attention to your (our) Jewishness; it could ignite anti-Semitism.”
Considering the recent uptick in anti-Semitism, perhaps our bubbes got it wrong. Turning Yiddish into a dead language in a single generation did not protect us Jews from murderous hate crimes, any more than speaking perfect English protected American-born Hispanics in El Paso.
As we celebrate the holiest time of the Jewish year even as we remember those lost in an anti-Semitic massacre almost a year ago, those of us of Ashkenazi heritage would do well to reflect upon the cultural richness of our tradition, including the lost Yiddish of our ancestors. The language of secrets still has something to say to us about joy, sorrow and forgiveness. If only we would listen. pjc
Stacia Friedman is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia.