Where We Belong, Where We Will Go, and How Fast?

I have tried to communicate the excitement of our reading groups. Every Tuesday after language class a group of us has been reading Di Heldn fun Chelm (The Wise Men of Chelm) and every Wednesday we’ve been reading from the weekly Torah portion in Yehoash’s Yiddish translation. This week we read about how the leading citizen of Chelm prepared a wedding feast for his only son. In the Torah, the twins Esau and Jakov battled it out in Rivka’s womb. Later, Esau sold his birthright as a first born son to Yakov for some lentil soup. We range from four or five readers to (more often lately) a dozen, each of us sounding out and translating a sentence or two at a time. Each group lasts only an hour, but it’s a great experience.

A couple of us had an interesting exchange with H on Tuesday, on our way out at the end of our Chelm reading group. She apologized for slowing us down. We immediately and vehemently thanked her for being an indispensable part of our group. She seemed surprised. I was surprised that she was surprised.

But I shouldn’t have been. This question of whether we ‘truly’ belong afflicts everyone. For myself, even as I learn a little faster than most of my fellow students (because I am putting in four times as much time), I realize again and again how over my head I am, how little time I have, and how much there is to do.

Since I’ve been translating one of my grandfather’s books, our teacher, D, wanted me to apply for a Yiddish Book Center translation fellowship this fall, and she offered to write me a letter of recommendation. The deadline was last week. In the end, I skipped it. The list of past recipients make it clear those who have received such fellowships are already fluent in the Yiddish language (in fact, that’s a prerequisite), and have PhDs in Jewish Studies, Literature, or Creative Writing and/or have already published books. Which in turn raises the question of who I think I am, and what I think I’m likely to accomplish.

In the meantime, as soon as several of my fellow students subscribed to my blog, I abruptly stopped writing. It’s not that I have run out of things to write about. In the last week or two, many topics have presented themselves, from small (the ‘urging particle’ akorsht, אקארשט; or the idiomatic expression, vi komt di katz ibern vasser?), to medium (the enigmatic figure of Isaac, and corresponding awesomeness of Rivka; or else the nuances of the various Yiddish words for people, nation, and folk), to large (what authenticity meant in I. L. Peretz’s time and what it means now; or how our ideas about grief affect how we come the study of Yiddish). At every level I wish I could know more, or present it better.

So that’s where I’ve been. Lots of ideas, but held back by the nagging feeling that I’m late to the party, and over my head. Or conversely, when the mood swings the other way, that I’m taking this all too seriously.

Here’s an example of feeling over my head. E came in to class Tuesday eager to show-and-tell her copy of Dover’s famous (infamous?) “Say it in Yiddish” guidebook. It is famous because of an essay by Michael Chabon, which appeared first in 1997 in a journal called Civilization, then in Harper’s Magazine. Originally titling his essay Guidebook to a Land of Ghosts, Chabon made fun of the phrases chosen and cited the nonexistence of a country, present or past, where the bankers, dentists, train conductors and hairstylists all speak Yiddish. In particular, he pointed to the phrase “Can I go by boat/ferry to _____” and said “Wither could I sail on that boat/ferry, in the solicitous company of Uriel and Beatrice Weinreich, and from what shore?”

Chabon’s encounter with this guidebook, his lament for a country that he says never really existed, a modern Yiddishland, was the spark that led to his writing his novel The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. But his musings also provoked a sharp critical response, from Hassidm, who do live their daily lives in Yiddish, and from some academic Yiddishists, who felt that Chabon had taken the publication of this guidebook out of context of what Jewish life was in the 1950s. I was unaware of any of this. [This fascinating essay by Janet Hadda, reprinted in Mendele, helped bring me up to speed.] Two weeks ago an article about the guidebook, Chabon’s essay, and the reaction to it, by Layzer Burko, appeared in Yiddish in the Forverts. Still a frightfully slow reader, I am now working my way through that article, in addition to my other reading.

All this makes me feel like I’m playing catch-up.

It also gives me great empathy for H. The fact is, in addition to her just being her, I value her reading with us.  I do so not despite, but because it’s harder for her. Of course in any group some will go a little faster and some a little slower. Kh has taken other classes, and has friends to practice speaking to in Yiddish. I had my German background. A, though he never read it, heard and spoke Yiddish a lot as a child and young man. T has her Hebrew. And so on.

Of course you want to include the person who is a little slower or has to hear something twice to get it. At any given moment, another of us might want to slow down, or need the repetition, too. She also provides me with someone to explain whatever I learned in the last week. There’s no better way to consolidate what you just learned than to explain it. And, when I get around to learning more conversational, as opposed to written, Yiddish, somebody out there is going to have to be very patient with me. Because the phrase book approach to speaking doesn’t get you very far. Finally, the fact that H sticks with it, and with us, even when it’s hard for her, is a tremendous validation that what we’re doing is important. Likewise, my classmates who are in their eighties and up came out on Tuesday in Rochester’s 18º weather in equal numbers as the younger half of the class.

Not everyone values what we do so highly. Last year, the JCC wanted more space on the bookshelves in the “Yiddish Cultural Center” (the room we meet in), and gave us a short time to get rid of about 1/5 of the books in the Yiddish library. A group of us worked to make sure that most or all the books we got rid of were duplicates (not easy to do fast in a sprawling, inadequately organized library). But at the same time, I reassured my friends, who were even more appalled than I was at this mistaken priority, that the contents of all these books had already been saved, and digitized at the Yiddish Book Center. “What we need,” I said at the time, “is readers.”

Based on this news item this process of shrinking local public collections of Yiddish books is widespread. Wherever it is happening, there seems to be agreement that unread books have no claim to real estate. Only readers can reverse the trend. Fair enough. From the point of view of us talmidim, there could be no more important work than inviting and creating such readers. But D’s classes are not aggressively promoted, and resources not devoted. At times, the JCC just seems like an athletic club with a star of David slapped on the outside, that would gladly sell out our cultural heritage for a bowl of red lentil soup.

Now the administration is at it again, insisting on leaving the door to the Yiddish Center unlocked, so that anyone who wants to can use it as a meeting space whenever they want**. This occasioned a new round of fretting among my fellow students. If thieves know our books have no resale value, they’ll be safe. But do they? Certainly opening the room will make it harder for our teacher, who won’t be able to leave most of her teaching materials in the room between classes. So our group is marginalized at the outskirts of our already marginal-enough group. Nu? What’s new?

And meanwhile, at the same time that the world is ending (as it always seems to be), we finally have our readers. Whether five people on a given day, or a dozen, we have people to read Yiddish with together. We have our library online. They could take the books, the room, all of it, I said to D, and we will still have that. We could, if we needed to, go anywhere. And this was her answer to the question in Chabon’s essay, about where someone could possibly go with his Say it in Yiddish guidebook. “It’s already taken us to Chelm, and to the Torah. Who knows where it will take us next?”

** [note, added after the fact. I’m unclear whether the administration was misunderstood, or were prevailed upon to change their minds. The room is kept so that it can be easily used by other groups, but is still locked. As usual, the world did not end. Yet.]

Say It

4 thoughts on “Where We Belong, Where We Will Go, and How Fast?

  1. וואסער איבערן קאץ די קומט ווי
    Speaking of how to get the cat over the water, I’m at a loss as to how to get the Yiddish typography to work, when there’s more than one word and especially when there are line breaks. Letters go the right way within words, then words are organized backwards, with the line breaks shuffling everything all over again. It looks good in the entry form, then gets scrambled again in the post itself. Instead of “Vi komt di katz ibern vasser?” I end up with “Vasser ibern katz di komt vi”. Vi, indeed.
    If there’s a Yiddish Web Typography for Dummies out there, someone please steer me towards it.


  2. A beautifully written piece, David, and on so many levels. On a personal level, I was surprised that you included in your blog our little exchange at the end of class. Yes, I was surprised to think that I’m an indispensable part of the group. It pleases me that you think so, but it’s not my perception. Old insecurities, in part. Guess we all have them. You certainly expressed yours so honestly in this blog. I could truly relate. I would normally be tempted to give up on something that is difficult, but there is so much enjoyment in our class. And you are a terrific role model. No matter what those PhDs and authors (that you spoke about) can contribute, I think that you will find a very significant place for yourself in the Yiddish world.

    Many thanks for spurring me onward. H


  3. Pingback: A Day in the Life of a Yiddish Learner. | Tongue's Memory

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