Like other Boomer Jews, I grew up overhearing my grandparents and parents speak to each other in Yiddish. They never spoke it to me, so I deduced that I shouldn’t learn it. My immigrant grandparents lived hardscrabble lives in Bronx ghettoes; with their limited English, they could never fully integrate into American society. They had been banned like Moses from entering its Promised Land, in part because they couldn’t pronounce “swordfish.” My bilingual parents, raising me over the Jordan in spacious, modern suburbs, had apparently concluded that the old-world vernacular might taint that perfect American-ness I was lucky enough to be born into. My command of English was my passport; it entitled me to roam from sea to shining sea. So they plugged my ears, sent me on ahead, and ordered me not to look back, lest an accent turn me into a pillar of Kosher salt.
However, the medium belied the message: The Yiddishists relished their language; they spoke it with operatic verve. And not just with their mouths, but hands and eyes, shoulders and backbones. Their tragic history, their fiddler-on-the-roof precariousness, their vivid spectrum of feelings, poured out in their language. Its klezmer cadenzas soared and sank in minor-key lamentation and exaltation, outrage and endearment.
Instead of absorbing Yiddish by osmosis at home, I studied Romance languages at school. I could use them when traveling, and their literature, unlike that of ghettoized Yiddish, was in dialogue with my own. I retained only a phrase or two of the rich, raucous Yiddish that had sung, stung, wept, accused, and joked around me in childhood. I can still hear my bubbe protesting Hoc mir nisht con chinik, Don’t bang on my teapot, or, Stop pestering me, with centuries of accumulated anguish roiling the syllables. But on the whole, Yiddish remained both as familiar and inscrutable as my grandparents’ faces, which had been gauged by tragedies unknown to their carefree American descendent.
Later I would learn about the mamaloschen’s bestiary of human types, including its extensive and refined vocabulary for the stupid and luckless, the manipulators and jerks (perhaps indicating prevalence, like the Inuits’ alleged hundred words for snow); its onomatopoeia for craziness and woe; and its eloquent curses. I also came to understand my parents’ decision. Yiddish was outmoded ghetto slang, its literature almost untranslatable because of the tangled referents to a vanished culture, its lexicon devoid of the mechanicals essential to modern life. Like a village lane bulldozed for a superhighway, Yiddish had had to yield to the high-speed flatness of English.
Although I didn’t learn Yiddish per se, I did absorb its modes of expression; the melody seeped in, if not the words. Irony, with its smirks and eye rolls, the outsiders’ encoded derision of the status quo, was the strongest survivor, tough as the metal nailed into its name. It continued relevant in my generation, since humanity was still falling short, and our Messiah hadn’t shown up yet (probably stuck in traffic on the Cross Bronx or FDR). Get Smart and Mad Magazine reinforced our early exposure. Although my peers and I still deploy irony among ourselves, it remains a private lingo. We tone it down when we enter schools, government offices, or businesses. My chronically ironic husband and I joke that hospitals should be marked with yellow tape: Caution! Irony-Free Zone. But the future of even this tough residual is bleak. My son’s generation, the millennials, is not ironic; you can’t squish irony’s multiple layers into texts or emoticons.
For centuries, Yiddish speakers had crowded into shtetls and ghettoes. My grandparents as children had probably slept on mattresses packed with siblings; my parents grew up sleeping on shared foldout couches in the combined living room-kitchen. Living without privacy, these forebears did not distinguish between thought and speech, as do those of us who have always had our own bedrooms. If somebody felt something, they blurted it out. So Yiddish, formed in dense communities of likeminded people who had it tough, was direct. Nobody could put on airs in Yiddish. Its allergy to pretension is familiar to anybody who has cracked up watching Chico and Harpo taunt Abie the Fishman or Rufus T. Firefly needle Gloria Teasdale. The policy is to forget that stuff and pick a card.
Manners, formalities, thank-you notes, hints, chitchat about the weather–all that was English. I can’t imagine my grandparents chirping “Have a nice day!” My bilingual mother had different personalities in English and in Yiddish; she was polite and cheerful in one and blunt and aggrieved in the other. Once she fell back into Yiddish in some argument with my father: “Tuches am tisch!” she insisted, slapping the table between them: “Put your ass on the line.” Such a crude phrase would never have passed her lipsticked lips in English. My monolingual grandparents, however, spoke Yiddish even when attempting English. Here’s an example of their translated directness that could be refreshing or rude, depending on your sensitivity: I introduced my zayde to a friend’s German boyfriend. “So tell me,” he greeted the young Aryan, “how do you feel about what your country did in World War II?”
The art of kibitzing, of banter seasoned with ribbing, dwindled when we emigrated out of Jewish enclaves. Acidic wariness of strangers dissolved it. So did corporate scripts, such as the cashier’s “You find everything okay?” My zayde was a world-class kibitzer. Once I heard him compliment a pink-haired, tattooed, nose-pierced clerk, “Such a nice smile on you; I’m gone tell the boss he should give you a raise.” The clerk’s blank stare showed me that kibitzing was doomed.
Kvetching, too, is no longer a living language. The “ain’t it awful’s” of previous generations have dissolved into WASP-ier positivity, the melodramatic woe into small talk; the moans and shrugs of oy vey have yielded to the stiff upper lip. My assimilated generation, while more reserved, also has less to complain about.
Occasionally in adulthood I tried to remedy what felt like illiteracy in my mother tongue. But primers–“Motteleh gait in shul/ Gitteleh gait in shul”—(of course Yiddish lessons begin with children going to school) are dreary. And even if I went through the long process of learning another language, when would I ever speak it? Fifty years ago, when my uncle traveled the world, he found Yiddish speakers everywhere, but I doubt that would happen today. I couldn’t even speak it at home anymore. My mother and grandmother are no longer in the kitchen arguing in Yiddish while they chop carrots for tsimmes or apples for strudel.
By now, a century after immigration and decades after the Holocaust, Yiddish is as endangered as rhinos and tigers, as are the languages of other tribes assimilated or hunted to near extinction. When asked about the future, an expert whose name I can’t recall replied, “Yiddish hasn’t had a good day in 900 years,” which, I guess, is what passes for optimism about a language that allegedly has no word for happiness. For now, Yiddish hangs on only in protected enclaves, such as ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, the Yiddish Book Center, and clubs at old-age homes. In mainstream culture, what was once a linguistic universe has dwindled into a punch line, an emailed Word of the Day, a colorful garnish plopped onto a bland English locution. If I ever am lucky enough to have a grandchild—to whom I am more likely to serve tofu than chicken soup–I can’t imagine asking him or her to call me bubbe.
Judith Sanders’ poetry collection In Deep is forthcoming from Kelsay Books. Her work appears in numerous journals, including Pleiades, The American Scholar, Modern Language Studies, Der Pakn Treger, and Poetica, and on the websites Vox Populi and Full Grown People. She lives with her family in Pittsburgh.