Monthly Archives: October 2014

Thoughts Before Our Yiddish Festival

This weekend, Beth Israel will host two events as part of a community wide Yiddish festival. The festival’s activities will include lectures, films, music and a general celebration of Yiddish language and culture.

I don’t speak Yiddish. I understand some words and phrases but like many my age, my association with Yiddish is largely nostalgic and is focused mainly around what I remember from my childhood.

My maternal grandmother spoke Yiddish quite often and usually spoke it in conversation with my father. My grandmother was born in Russia and Yiddish was her first language and the language spoken at home when she was a child. My father was born here but his father spoke Yiddish at home. He was a non-religious Jew who was completely absorbed in Jewish culture and Yiddish was naturally the focus of much of my grandfather’s identity as a Jew.

My mother understood some of her mother’s Yiddish but never spoke the language so my experience with the language was listening to my grandmother and my father try to speak with each other. I say “try to” because while they both spoke Yiddish, there was obviously a great difference in the language they had each learned based on the fact that their families had come from different places in Europe. I remember finding it very funny to hear them try to understand each other, most often succeeding, but only after critical English words had been thrown in to the conversation.

After all these years, the clearest memories I have of Yiddish in our home was of my Grandmother’s and father’s frequently used phrases. I’m going to try to recreate some of them here but keep in mind that transliteration is always a problem and their brands of Yiddish came from particular places and times so the phrases which might sound a bit off to anyone exposed to a different form of the language.

Some of my favorites were her response to a simple Gut Shabbas. She would say: Gut Shabbas, Gut Yor, a Gezunt Yor, a Leibidike Yor “You should have a good year, a healthy year, a year of life”… I think there were more good wishes but I don’t remember them.

Then, if we were to pass a car on the side of the road which had been in an accident or some other kind of trouble, she would always say: nidugadacht. which I take to mean: “it shouldn’t happen”.

Finally, she would often say when something bad happened: “Oy a klox a mir” which I think meant: “Oy, there is a curse on me” but I’d love to hear a better translation.

My father’s favorites included this line which we often heard while watching football games; “vikeyn gihaged dorten”, “you could get killed there”.

He would always talk about “a taite bunker” at the end of a long phrase meaning: “It would help as much as a dead leech”.

But, there were other much more common phrases as well and other longer, more explicit and more emotional expressions which I won’t go into.

I know there is so much more to Yiddish language and culture than the few odd phrases I still remember from my childhood. I regret not learning the language and being able to read Yiddish stories or poetry in the original. But, I am truly appreciative of those who aim to keep the language and the culture alive. It is a critical part of our tradition as Jews and the revival in different places of Yiddish helps us continue the chain of Jewish culture and tradition to generations to come. It also helps many of us hold onto some distant childhood memories.

I hope those of you in Ann Arbor will take advantage of the opportunity offered by this very special week of programming to celebrate Yiddish. Even if your familiarity with the language is weak as mine is, we can all rejoice in this important part of our tradition and our culture.


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Standing In The Dark-Again

This morning, I did it again. I stood out in the chilly pre-dawn air. This time I had to stand in the middle of the street but I was able to do that rather comfortably. I know some people in neighboring homes were looking at me trying to figure out what I was doing. But, it’s no secret and it shouldn’t have been a surprise. I was looking at the total lunar eclipse. It was a beautifully clear morning and once I was able to get to a point where the trees weren’t in the way, it was a beautiful sight.

I have written in this blog and in other places about my fascination with astronomy and with various celestial phenomena. In many ways, the lunar eclipse is among the less spectacular of these to the layperson. There is, really, not much to see except a progressively smaller and then progressively bigger moon. But, still, I am fascinated and wouldn’t miss it when it is visible, especially since Michigan weather rarely seems to cooperate.

I think that for me the most fascinating aspect of the lunar eclipse is the most easily explained by those more skilled in science than myself. But, I still can not quite understand how these events can be predicted so accurately. I know it is simply a matter of mathematics, physics, astronomy etc. which scientists find easy to calculate using their knowledge and computer technology. But, I see in this predictability the hand of the Creator whose universe follows such strict, predictable rules that such calculations can be made in the first place. This eclipse, like all of the others, was right on time.

But, this lunar eclipse was special in another way. A lunar eclipse, by definition, can only take place at the time of a full moon. But, this full moon is special in that it is the full moon heralding the beginning of the holiday of Sukkot this evening. Biblical holidays were calculated according to the lunar month and the time for Sukkot, the harvest holiday, was established at the full moon. Whether there was a philosophical reason for this date or whether it was simply the brightest night of the month which would make a celebration more meaningful or more convenient, it seems so appropriate that the holiday be tied to the full moon.

What particular moves me about this though is that, 6 months ago, on the other side of the calendar, we looked at the same full moon as we sat down at the Pesach seder. Passover was also timed to come at the time of the full moon allowing us to imagine the Exodus from Egypt taking place on that brightest night of the month with the light reflecting from the full moon symbolizing the light of freedom.

Not every full moon produces a lunar eclipse of course. But, I am grateful for the opportunity this year, as we approach the holiday of Sukkot to have had a good reason to go out and stare at the moon. Doing so reminds us not only of the grandeur of the universe but of the passage of time as we move from celebration to celebration, from festival to festival, from freedom to Thanksgiving.

Hag Sameach!

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