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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