What would my parents think if they knew I’d been spending hours and hours crawling through a tome on Yiddish linguistics… in Yiddish? They would probably laugh themselves silly, because they know I don’t know anything but kiddie Yiddish.
At least, that was my mother’s reaction when I passed the German exemption exam in graduate school solely on the basis of the German I had heard at home. For the exam I had to translate a poem by Heine (that was easy) and a passage of literary criticism on Cervantes consisting of one sentence that took up a whole page. For that I had to look up almost every word, but somehow German sentence structure had passed into my brain by osmosis and I was able to figure out what was a noun and what was a verb.
My parents, refugees from Hitler’s Europe, spoke both Yiddish and German. My mother grew up in Vienna in a Yiddish-speaking home. My father, who grew up in Poland, lived in Vienna for about 10 years as a young man. In America, they spoke mostly Yiddish to each other and to some of their friends, German to other friends, and mostly English to the children.
When I was about thirteen, my mother realized she had missed the opportunity to teach me Yiddish, so she started speaking Yiddish to me. She couldn’t have picked a worse time. I refused to play along; I would not utter a word of that foreign language. But I understood everything she said to me.
Today, I have a hard time keeping German and Yiddish, which is largely a dialect of German, separate. I can’t even remember how my parents (who spoke with the accent of Galicia) pronounced the words that were pronounced differently by Lithuanian Jews.
And yet, between those two languages and Hebrew (there are lots of Hebrew words in Yiddish), I am able to get the gist of this tome on linguistics, at least in the introductory section which isn’t too technical. I can appreciate some of the author’s mixed metaphors, for example (in my rough translation): “In 801, the name of a Jew (Isaac) wrests itself from the long night of silence and swims [to the surface] in Aachen, a sort of patriarch Isaac of Ashkenaz.” This Isaac was one of the emissaries of Charlemagne (Carl the Great) to the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid, and the date marks the beginning of Jewish settlement in the mid-Rhine region.
And when the author says that a native speaker of Yiddish will accept a nonce word if it is built according to the rules of Yiddish—for example, a noun to which the suffix “-nik” has been added—I have no trouble following his argument.
A friend asked why I’m bothering with Yiddish linguistics. I suppose it’s because of the challenge. Another friend is going to lead a monthly study group of this text, and I thought it would be fun to join in. Perhaps, also, it’s a way of reaching out to my long-dead parents, with whom I had a difficult relationship.
I don’t know the level of the other group members, but my friend’s Yiddish is excellent. He even writes it flawlessly. His Hebrew, including the pronunciation, is perfect, too, and his English is nearly flawless. But he’s a linguist, and that explains everything.
And what would my parents think if they knew that this person leading the group for which I’m going to all this trouble to learn about Yiddish linguistics is named Tsuguya Sasaki?
Text copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.