Way back in the mid-‘90s, my wife and I thought we should get back in touch with our roots and finally learn Yiddish. After all, my in-laws speak the language fluently, and my parents certainly understood it well and could converse. So we figured that before we had kids, we’d better learn Yiddish (so we could speak in a code our children could not break, much like the Navajos with the Japanese during World War II).
Ah, the best laid schemes of mice and men.
We took a once-a-week evening class at Baltimore Hebrew University with the late Dr. Solomon Manischewitz. While we earnestly wanted to understand the language, I think what we really wanted to learn was enough to get by, just when we wanted to chat among ourselves (and maybe for a few good jokes).
As anyone who met him knows, Dr. Manischewitz was a charming, brilliant, gentle and delightful man. For more than 50 years, he was a beloved teacher and individual in Baltimore’s Jewish community, always with a twinkle in his eye and a positive word to say. You couldn’t help but love this man.
But when it came to teaching, Dr. Manischewitz was simply not fooling around. He didn’t view Yiddish as a folksy, schmaltzy little language for occasional schmoozing and joke-telling. He didn’t see it as potentially irrelevant or outdated, like other “lost languages,” or only to be studied for scholarly purposes. He didn’t care if we were simply adult evening students with too much time on our hands. He didn’t know from any of our hankerings of nostalgia.
A Holocaust survivor, Dr. Manischewitz was absolutely serious about teaching his native tongue, the mamaloshen, and he treated it just like any instructor would with French, Spanish, Italian, Mandarin Chinese, whatever. He demanded complete concentration and reverence. He wanted us to conjugate verbs, form coherent sentences, employ various clauses, etc. He used to say, “Now if a stewardess asks you if you want coffee, how do you respond?”
(Tell me, how many stewardesses have you met that speak Yiddish? On Zei Gezunt Airlines?)
Needless to say, most of us in that course weren’t up to the challenge. I have to confess that I cut class quite a few times, something that burned up my wife since she always felt I was Dr. Manischewitz’s “class pet” (most likely because he always had a strong affinity for the Jewish Times and tended to rub my cheek and call me “a good boy.”)
Unfortunately, my wife and I are not Yiddish speakers today, and we are forced to use other means to clandestinely communicate in front of our children (whispers, hand gestures, miming, poor drawings, charades). Our lives would be a lot easier if we just would have paid more attention to Dr. Manischewitz.
Recently, I heard that Israel’s Ben-Gurion University is establishing a center for Yiddish studies. The center will host workshops and colloquia, publish forgotten and obscure Yiddish works, and collaborate with Yiddish research centers around the world.
That’s really good news, especially when you hear that funding for other Yiddish programs—like the one at the University of Maryland College Park—is being cut. We’re talking here about the language of our ancestors, a mother tongue that has survived millennia of persecution, pogroms and assimilation (and morons like myself). Yiddish is a lifeline to our past, a world that Hitler and others unsuccessfully attempted to decimate.
Today, an estimated 500,000 people in the world still speak Yiddish. At the start of the 20th century, that figure was at more than 10 million. Besides all of the external forces, I suspect that major, major drop is largely due to embarrassment – among both American Jews and Israelis – toward Yiddish.
Israelis tend to think of Yiddish as the language of victims, while we American Jews consider it (in our heart of hearts) as an outdated immigrants’ tongue. We look at it as cute and kitschy – like the Suburban House restaurant’s amusing glossary placemat of Yiddishisms—but nothing more.
I made that mistake when I took Dr. Manischewitz’s class, and I regret it today. Nothing would give me more nachas than if my children – the very people for whom I was trying to learn Yiddish (to keep secrets from them) – would learn their grandparents’ precious language and use it to keep information from me.
Nu, wouldn’t that be a zetz in the kishkes?