The Yiddish Learner – Barbara Krasner

October 18, 2023. The metal folding chairs remain mostly empty in the community college art gallery, although we’ve been planning a series of events around Holocaust survivor Yonia Fain’s art and poetry for months. I stand in front of his “Witness to History” marker and pastel series. In one hand I hold a mic despite the small gathering. In the other I hold a printout of Fain’s poetry in English and Yiddish. For days I’ve been practicing two of his Yiddish poems, “At Night,” and “Treblinka.” The pages for these poems bear my handwritten transliterations, the way a Hebrew prayer book shows English transliterations in italics beneath the Hebrew for those who can’t read the Hebrew alphabet. But the truth is, it’s taken me decades to get to this point.

In 2020, as a doctoral candidate in Holocaust & Genocide Studies, I launched into a two-year formal study of Yiddish. Because for decades I’d been feeling this gap between the generations. The chasm became obvious when I once walked into the reading room of the Center for Jewish History on W. 16th Street in Manhattan, and I couldn’t read the spines of any of the books in Yiddish. Russian I could do. German I could most certainly do since I majored in German as an undergrad. But now faced with my total inability to read the language of my people, my mother’s mother tongue, and the language of all my grandparents, what could I do?

I tried to study it on my own, sort of. In sixth grade, 1969, I asked my mother and her friends, just home from a Sisterhood event at the shul, to teach me Yiddish. Mrs. Kurtzer said, “Geh’ shlufen.” “What does that mean?” I asked. “Go to bed.” It didn’t occur to me until decades later that the ladies didn’t want to be bothered by a twelve-year-old. They wanted to dish. My aunt told me once my grandfather spoke beautiful Jewish. I said, “No, he speaks Yiddish,” not understanding that Yiddish was the Yiddish word for Jewish.

I approached the language again as an adult pursuing family history. In the early 1990s, I bought a Holocaust memorial book for Vitebsk. It took me minutes to sound out one word. It turned out to be an English word, “benevolent” as in the name of a landsmanshaft, a town-based mutual aid society. In 2014, I traveled to the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass. for a week-long course. But I didn’t cotton to the immersion-style of language training. Where was the textbook? Where were the vocabulary lists? Where was language lab? Instead the instructor threw a beanie frog to each of us so we knew it was our turn to respond. Really? We were adults. There were open cups of coffee on the table. I came away from the week learning very little.

Then the institution where I was pursuing my doctorate offered Yiddish I. I registered as an auditor, since there would be no credit for the course in my curriculum. I wanted to be able to speak the language of my ancestors, to be able to read it, feel the vowels and consonants roll around and cavort with each other on my tongue. The instructor, a German woman who held a doctorate in Yiddish from Columbia, was thrilled, I think, that I knew German. She would say, “Bryna (my Yiddish name) will know this word. It comes from the German.” Yeah, maybe, but that was forty years ago when I was fluent.

Still, even as I splashed around the pool in water aerobics, I sang Yiddish songs in my head, trying to sound more like a real Yiddish speaker with each iteration. How could I perfect the accent? To perfect my German, I spent my junior year abroad in Germany. But where would I go to perfect Yiddish? Crown Heights in Brooklyn? I had wanted to take a Yiddish program in Vilna, but that was discontinued around COVID. There was one in Israel, not an option these days, and one in Warsaw, maybe.

I continued with Yiddish II and took virtual courses with the same instructor at YIVO. I enrolled in an academic course with her on Reading Yiddish for Holocaust Research, although I was the only person in the class in the Holocaust program. I translated a 1947 article by Philip Friedman, the father of Holocaust historiography, about the destruction of eastern Galician Jewry. My father’s mother, whom I never knew, had been born in eastern Galicia. All but one of her siblings died by bullets or Belzec. I was too naive to know that the article was way beyond my ken. I struggled with words of Hebrew origin, loshn khoydesh, because I really didn’t know any Hebrew beyond a little conversation ditty I learned in the mid-1960s in Hebrew School that included “how are you this morning?” I made a list of these Hebrew words that popped up again and again in our readings. Classmates with knowledge of Hebrew were really beginning to piss me off. Of course, I was just angry at my own failings.

I gave up my study of Yiddish in 2022 when my teaching schedule became too heavy. But then I became involved in this exhibit of Fain’s art and poetry at the community college where I direct the college’s Holocaust, Genocide & Human Rights Education Center. The curator, born in the Soviet Union, and a fellow member of the tribe, said he would read Fain’s poetry in Yiddish. I was not about to be upstaged, so I said, “I can do that, too.” I chose two poems with the least amount of Hebrew that I could detect.

It wasn’t my first rodeo at performing in another language. As a high school senior I performed “Tri Medvedya,” “The Three Little Bears,” in our town’s junior high schools to get students interested in taking Russian in high school. That same year, at my German teacher’s urging, I recited “Die Küchenuhr,” “Tke Kitchen Clock,” by Wolfgang Borchert in the German Declamation Contest at Rutgers University. I had a terrible time pronouncing the “u” with an umlaut that to me required making a fishface. I won an honorable mention. Most of the winners spoke German at home.

One of my German professors at Douglass College insisted I spoke Yiddish at home and that’s why my German was so good. Not so. My father routinely butchered the language. My mother only spoke it to get us kids out of the room. My Italian/Irish-Catholic brother-in-law knew more Yiddish than I did, because he had attended Long Island University. I was embarrassed when he used “tsotschke” at a holiday meal, pointing to some figurine poised on my mother’s breakfront.  I didn’t know what that was.

Sure, most Americans know certain words like bagel, shlep, and if they’ve watched Mel Brooks, tuchus and shtup. There had even been in the mid-1960s a Jewish monopoly-like game called Chutzpah wherein Chance and Community Chest cards became Shlemazl and Shlemiel, before those terms became iconic in the “Laverne and Shirley” theme song.

In 2008, as my mother lay incoherent after a failed surgery, she whispered to me in Yiddish. I called her Leah (instead of her American name, Lillian) and stroked her forehead and her forearms. She was back in Brooklyn, Bensonhurst, to be exact, in her Jewish neighborhood, where she didn’t learn English until she entered the public school system. What came to my mother and her forebears o naturally, I had to study by book and lots of practice. I don’t think, though, my mother could ever read Yiddish, which uses Hebrew characters and like Hebrew is read right to left.

Now so many years later here I stand. There’s only one person in the audience, my friend and colleague, Avrumele, who will know if and when I make a mistake. My hand shakes and the Yiddish and my transliterations float in front of me. I persevere, crack some jokes. I read first in Yiddish and then in English.

And then I’m done. I did it. I write a note to my Yiddish instructor to tell her of my accomplishment. I wonder what my mother and grandparents would think of their descendant, who wasn’t born to Yiddish, giving a public reading. The language doesn’t come naturally to me. I don’t speak with my mother’s or grandmother’s accent. The language doesn’t come naturally to me. I don’t speak with my mother’s or grandmother’s accent. Still, it feels like I could hold my own, sitting with them at the kitchen table, shmoozing.


Barbara Krasner holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her essays have appeared in Jewish Literary Journal, The Manifest-Station, Collateral, South 85, The Smart Set, The Galitzianer, and other publications. She lives and teaches in New Jersey and can be found at

2 thoughts on “The Yiddish Learner – Barbara Krasner

  1. Lisa Vice

    I really enjoyed reading The Yiddish Learner by Barbara Krasner. The title tells us how this is an ongoing process and we are taken through time as she learns. The scene where the child asks her mother and friends to teach her Yiddish is sad and funny at the same time. “Geh shlufen: go to bed.” By the end of the essay, the narrator is ready to join the kitchen table and schmooz. But these relatives are no longer alive. So that adds to the sense of what’s lost while at the same time, what’s gained in this language journey.
    The writer really captures how hard it is to learn a new language. I groaned over the bean bag throwing. I identified with singing Yiddish songs to learn. Also, the moment in the library when the narrator realizes “I couldn’t even read the spines of any books of the books in Yiddish” really shows what she was up against. The scene where the mother whispers in Yiddish and the telling of the mom’s way of learning Yiddish shows the contrast with the author’s yearning to learn. She enters this world in a different way, but she is in the world of Yiddish.

    I loved thinking about all the Yiddish words I’ve managed to learn over the years and after reading this essay, I have more to add to my list!

  2. Laurie Elmquist

    I really enjoyed reading your article. So many of these Yiddish words I’ve only heard spoken, so my brain got a little tangled in the spelling. But this feeling of groping toward meaning seems to be what you are talking about, so it felt good to go along this journey with you. I love that tender moment when you call your mother, Leah, and stroke her forehead — to be able to give your mother a small moment of herself back to her. Beautiful.


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