Four university professors, a physicist, an engineer, and one journalistke met in a book-lined room to read together—aloud—a book on Yiddish linguistics. The host had set out traditional Jewish fare, rozhinkes mit mandeln (raisins and almonds) and poured little glasses of kosher wine so they could drink a l’chaim (a toast) to the beginning of their endeavor.
And then the jokes started flying—in Yiddish.
In the round of introductions, the participants told how they had come to know Yiddish. One said, “I heard it at home.” “You mean you overheard it,” responded another.
When it came to the host, the linguist Tsuguya Sasaki, someone asked how many languages he knows.
“Ich ken shveign oif dreitzen sprach (I can shut up in thirteen languages),” Sasaki quipped with a straight face.
Sasaki and one of the participants also attend a similar group that reads Esperanto, a language that they described as “Yiddish for goyim [non-Jews].”
“Why is Esperanto a Slavic language?” one of them tossed out. “Because it’s a dialect of Yiddish!” responded the other.
They described attending an Esperanto conference in another country where the delegates spoke Yiddish during the break. And what do you think the Esperanto aficionados did during a break in the Yiddish meeting? Of course, they talked Esperanto.
The host, who teaches Hebrew linguistics at Bar-Ilan University, proudly showed off a Yiddish-Japanese dictionary he had acquired. Then he wondered why three of the people who said they were coming had not shown up yet.
One of the professors assured him that they were probably operating on Jewish time and explained that if you set the time for acht bidiyuk (8 o’clock on the dot), you couldn’t expect much because bidiyuk is an acronym for “biz de yidden vellen kommen” (until the Jews arrive).
Meanwhile, there was a mini-discussion of poverty. One participant told a joke about a town so poor that when someone wanted to break a 100 crown note, no one could find a 100 crown note to break.
And another participant recalled that when she started teaching Yiddish at Bar-Ilan, she was told that the Lithuanian pronunciation is now considered standard. This was not what she had grown up with, but she quickly learned it, so much so that when she came home and started talking to her father, Lithuanian Yiddish came out of her mouth. Her father, quite annoyed (because there has always been rivalry between the different groups of Yiddish speakers) said to her, “Ti mir a toive—red vi a mensch (Do me a favor—talk like a human being).”
When the actual reading for which we had gathered began, I wanted to crawl under my chair and hide. Everyone else read with at least a fair degree of fluency, and some with mellifluous ease. I had never read Yiddish aloud, except to sound out the words in the text as I was reading it in preparation for the meeting. There were so many unfamiliar words, but even the familiar ones were easier to grasp if I said them aloud to myself.
Suffice it to say that everyone was very polite when I read and even wished me a yasher koich (“congratulations,” usually used when someone has an honor in the synagogue, such as reading from the Torah). Maybe I will improve with practice, but I wouldn’t put my money on it.
Meanwhile, I was happy to learn that our host’s immediate family in Japan was not directly affected by today’s earthquake and tsunami.
And on that positive note, I wish you a gitten shabbes (a good Sabbath) and apologize if I’ve mangled the transliterations.
Text copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.