“Yiddish is written and spoken in a number of Orthodox Jewish
communities around the world, although there are also many Orthodox
Jews who do not know Yiddish. It is a home language in most Hasidic
communities, where it is the first language learned in childhood, used
in schools and in many social settings. Yiddish is also the academic
language of the study of the Talmud according to the tradition of the
great Lithuanian Yeshivohs.”
Thus opines the Great Wikipedia.
Well, I was one of those Orthodox Jews who didn’t know Yiddish. And boy, did it bother me. Firstly, when the adults used it as their “secret language.” Secondly, when they laughed uproariously at a joke that was “funnier in Yiddish” (this was perhaps my first introduction to FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out, that still afflicts me today). Thirdly, when my Hungarian grandmother expressed her disappointment at my Yiddish ignorance.
Back to the GW:
“Yiddish (ייִדיש yidish or אידיש idish, literally “Jewish“) is a High German language of Ashkenazi Jewish origin, spoken throughout the world. It developed as a fusion of German dialects with Hebrew, Aramaic, Slavic languages and traces of Romance languages. It is written in the Hebrew alphabet.”
Nice, GW, but you don’t address the burning question: why perpetuate Yiddish at all?
Well, many feel that one shouldn’t. That it’s the language of the ghetto, of the past, the opposite of progress. Others perpetuate it for those very reasons – it clings to our past, our Ashkenazi history, the faith of the past. Yet others reject it as a culture but consider it to be valuable history. This, my friends, highlights quite the fault line among Jews today – to cling to the past, or to shake it off and move forward? And then there are those that have one foot on each tectonic plate: move forward, but hang onto the past. (An interesting exercise: see if you can determine where you stand, then ask someone with different ideologies from yours where you stand.)
In any event, my brothers, being members of the “great Lithuanian Yishevohs (sic),” did understand that elusive, funny, secret language. Fortunately, so did my husband. So we made a pact: each night at dinner, we’d spend 5 minutes conversing exclusively in Yiddish.
Q. How do you say “how do you say” in Yiddish?
A. Vi zugt men…
[This was the critical lesson that enabled all future lessons.]
Q. Vi zugt men potatoes?
Fortunately, two things were working in my favor. Firstly, I had heard enough Yiddish swirling around my head as a child to have some rudimentary familiarity with the basics. Also, my husband spoke Yiddish with a decided, um, American accent and dialect (ich vill essen broit mit peanut butter – I think I’ll have some bread with peanut butter) that assisted my linguistic skills considerably, and wasn’t I pleasantly surprised to discover that peanut butter was a Yiddish term.
And wasn’t my lovely grandmother delighted to learn that her second-generation American granddaughter had kept the chain of Yiddish proficiency alive.
And now we can laugh at the same jokes. Success.