When I was growing up I heard Yiddish everywhere.
It was in the air, in the water and especially in the food.
I grew up in New York City. My first few years were in Mid-town Manhattan but my earliest memories come from the Bronx where my family lived in what were called the projects.
The projects were very large housing complexes meant for people of modest means.
They were actually very nice having recently been constructed after World War II. Though I went to a local school, PS 109, which was within walking distance. My father used to walk me and my sister to school each day since he was unemployed for several years. My mother worked as a secretary. My father was a CPA and also had an MBA. However, in those days most of the accounting firms in NYC would not hire Jews. So he only had work during the tax seasons when they were so swamped with work they would hire Jews. Then, after the season, they would let them go. At one point he got a job with a small Jewish firm. Their clients were all Jewish firms who gave their business to such firms to help them along. If you go back and look in the NY Times, Herald Tribune and other local papers you will see that the want ads specify – White, male, Christian only. That was the way it was then. Late, things changed, of course.
So I grew up in this environment.
Everything was Jewish. My parents never socialized with non-Jews. I personally knew no non-Jews until I was nine years old when we moved to northern New Jersey. However, as a young child I never thought about these things. I assumed that everyone was like us. We wanted to be with people who were like us because otherwise things could get a bit uncomfortable.
And then there was the language.
We were descended from European Jews who had left their homes for a better life. Like most immigrants they retained many cultural ties with their homes. One of them was language.
The European Jews from whom I come spoke Yiddish as their language. This language developed when the Jews came to Europe from other places. Originally, they had lived in the land of Israel for many years. This is our ancestral home. They had been driven out of Israel in 70 AD by the Romans. They settled in Babylonia, present day Iraq. After being expelled from Babylonia they came to Europe. It was here that Yiddish gradually developed so that they could communicate with each other. There are manuscripts in Yiddish that date back over a thousand years so we know it was widely spoken.
Yiddish is a Germanic language like Dutch, Swedish and Danish. Probably about 70% of it has Germanic roots from the middle ages. The rest is rooted in Hebrew and Slavic languages. It is written in Hebrew characters from right to left.
Though my family spoke English our English was filled with Yiddish words. I didn’t know that these words were Yiddish. I just knew that this is the way we spoke and communicated. So I grew up with this language as a de facto way of experiencing the world. My parents were the children of immigrants who had come from Poland and Latvia. The parents spoke Yiddish as home though they also learned English. So my parents both speak fluent Yiddish. They would use it exclusively when they didn’t want the children to understand them. Later on I made it a point of learning Yiddish quite well but this was when I was in my teens. At that point they spoke Yiddish less and less compared to when we lived in NYC.
What resulted from this is that I still think in Yiddish words for certain things. Many people who are not Jewish but grew up in NYC amongst people like us acquired this familiarity with these words, too. It was just a part of life. Words like schlemiel, drek, nebekh, davven, farkakte, meshugene, goyish, shikse, sheygetz, and thousands of others were just how we communicated. They were a lot more expressive than their English equivalents which still sound rather weird to me.
Consequently, Yiddish mixed with English became our language.
Later on, in 1969 when I went to Jerusalem and spent two years studying in an ultra-orthodox Jewish school ( a yeshivah) this dual language experience became even more pronounced. The school had been transported from Brooklyn and was housed in an orphan asylum until it could find a home. I lived in that building, which had been built when Israel had been part of the Ottoman Empire. It was an enormous, dank, dingy, cold structure. Everything was stone; the floors, walls, ceilings. The tables and chairs were wooden and of very poor quality. The place was old. The walls were painted an institutional green.
Our yeshivah had one large room where all the students sat in folding chairs and studied the Torah. Our texts were in Biblical and medieval Hebrew as well as Aramaic. No one taught me these languages; I was just expected to learn them on my own in order to study and learn the materials. I had a dictionary; that was it.
Many of the classes were conducted in Yiddish. No one had ever studied this language. They just knew it from growing up in an exclusively Yiddish environment, an environment which was much more Yiddish-dominated than mine had been. I doubt that my parents, who stopped speaking this language as their only tongue when they were about 6 or 7 years old, would have understood many of my lessons. Well, I certainly didn’t. However, there I was, sitting in a class and unable to understand most of what was being said. When the teacher would call on me and I had no idea what he was saying, he would simply go to the next student. This went on for two years. I was never excused from the classes. I had to attend.
So in this situation the students, who were all Americans, conversed in English. However, the language that we used we called yeshivish. It was about 70% English and the rest Yiddish, Hebrew, and Aramaic expressions from the Babylonian Talmud ( the major text studied in the yeshiva).
Consequently, I became totally fluent in yeshivish and still use it today when conversing with people from that background of whom there are quite a few in the Jewish world.
(to be continued)