“I fell in love with Yiddish in 1994,” wrote Matthew Goodman in The American Scholar six years afterwards, “which is to say, too late.” The Michal Chabon essay I described a couple of weeks ago, with its mixture of derision and lament, is only one example of the genre of the personal essay response to the decline of Yiddish in the twentieth century. Though “Guidebook to a Land of Ghosts” generated more attention, Goodman’s Falling in Love with Yiddish is a deeper piece, thoughtful, lyrical, grounded in real knowledge of the language, and of the community of speakers. It recounts his relationship to Yiddish as an adult learner, the joy of discovery and the experience of loss.
Goodman interweaves several threads, including the history of the language and literature as well as the state of Yiddish, especially in New York, in the 1990s. But he mostly presents the narrative of his learning Yiddish and coming to learn more about himself, his history and his identity in the process. Yiddish language and culture seemed to him a true alternative path to Religiosity and Zionism, those more mainstream answers Jews came up with to the question of continuity. But, like a path through the woods without enough traffic or maintenance to keep it cleared, he could feel it closing off.
That’s my metaphor, though, not the one that Goodman chose. For him, the central metaphor of his essay was that his coming to Yiddish was like falling in love with a beautiful woman who was dying of cancer. He describes the lover as first being in denial, so smitten by her that it barely registers that they are sitting in a cancer ward, then later deluding himself that he, if he is only brilliant and devoted enough, will somehow be able to save her.
I knew Matt Goodman as a teenager when we went to the same high school. We were a year apart in age and traveled in slightly different social circles. He was younger, and his friends were cooler, and in our clique- and age-separated world, we never really had an opportunity to get to know each other. But I noticed him and thought well of him. We actually became friends 30 years later, at a propitious historical moment— the year all the grownups got on Facebook.
At first, it was not clear how people were supposed to use that new social space, and a few of us, naively perhaps, thought it was a venue for real communication. I used to write long personal essays on facebook. People also got into real discussions of what was happening in the their lives and in their world. Some still do. I made several friends in those first couple of years with whom I’ve subsequently interacted in the real world. Matt and I met in person at a small facebook-inspired reunion of high school friends, and later got together for a beer when I was in his neighborhood. We talked about writing (he is an accomplished writer and I an aspiring one) and about Yiddish, and he mailed me a copy of his essay soon after.
Until now, I’ve never been able to answer him. I carried that article around for years, intending to write him a letter about it, but could not. It ended up in the trunk of my car, where it stayed for another year. But though I could not answer him, I also could not NOT answer him. On the one hand, I had the unfinished business of my vow to learn the language and translate my grandfather’s books one day. On the other hand, I could not get past his central comparison, that learning Yiddish was to him like falling in love with a woman who was dying of cancer. Because, at the time he gave me the essay, it was still less than two years since I had in fact lost my wife to cancer.
If learning Yiddish was like sitting by a dying love’s bedside, I would have to take a pass. Because I had just done that and was not about to subject myself to it again. Somehow, I felt that the analogy in Goodman’s article, beautiful and enlightening as it was, missed something crucial at a deep level. But in my own grief I was unable to articulate it, try though I might. The essay went in the trunk of my car, and I went about the more pressing life tasks of moving, of trying to either salvage my career or else figure out what came next, and of trying to meet an actual physical woman to fall in love with. But, his having shared his story with me at an early stage in our friendship was a great gift, and I felt my failing to answer it represented something of a lost opportunity.
In one sense this whole blog is an answer to the dilemma posed by his essay for me. In another, I feel like I have to say more. How we think about and come to terms with loss is crucial to the project of learning Yiddish. There is no learning Yiddish without being willing to experience and work through grief. Perhaps in my mid fifties and widowed, I have something to say about that which Matt could not have in his late thirties, when he struggled with these issues and wrote that article.
I do recommend his love letter to the language. A note on how you might be able to get it is below. In part two of this post, I will try again. Because I believe, despite his experience, that the study of Yiddish can mend more hearts than it breaks.
Note: Goodman’s American Scholar article is under copyright protection. However, JSTOR, an academic journal clearinghouse allows you to create a personal account and save up to three articles to read online for free. If you follow this link to Matt Goodman’s article, you should also be able to see instructions (under the button labeled “Read Online Free”) to set up an account. Once you do, JSTOR will let you keep up to three articles at a time to read for free online.