On Grief and Yiddish: Answer to Matt Goodman, Part One

“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.

2 thoughts on “On Grief and Yiddish: Answer to Matt Goodman, Part One

  1. My name is Maida Feingold and I am intrigued by your story, which I just read after seeing your post on the Boiberik Facebook page. I was a Boiberik counselor in the 60’s, the music counselor around 1970 and then the folksinger in residence on the guest side in the early 70’s. Don’t know if our paths ever crossed or not, but I am always intrigued by people who come to study Yiddish in their adult years, for whatever reason. I wanted to ask you where you are studying it and to let you know that starting in January, the Workmens Circle (with whom I have an affiliation) is going to be having several online live Yiddish classes. If you want more information, you can send me your email address and I can put it on the mailing list.
    I also know your aunt and uncle, first from Boiberik so many years ago, but most recently because they attended the “Trip to Yiddishland” at Circle Lodge, where I was the folksinger also.
    If you are interested in becoming immersed in Yiddish culture for one week, may i recommend you also come to that week in the beginning of July 2015. There are Yiddish classes on all levels, Yiddish talks, theatre, song, poetry, etc and the ages of the guests range from 8-80 and above. Hope to hear from you.
    Regards,
    Maida

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  2. Hello, Maida,
    Thanks for introducing yourself and for your comment. I am learning at the JCC in Rochester, NY. We have a great teacher, who teaches Yiddish language in the context of Jewish history and culture. Enough people have been studying with her for long enough and can read well enough that we’ve also been able to set up two leynenkrayzn– peer-led reading groups. In one we are reading my Zeidy’s: Heldn fun Khelm, and in the other we are reading Yehoash’s Yiddish translation of the Torah. Next term some of us be reading poetry, with me as group leader.
    Thanks for letting me know about Workman’s Circle’s online classes that start in January. I find myself somehow unable to learn much in online classes, though others have had great success with them. I’m mostly going for reading literacy first. I do hope to get to some rudimentary speaking competence too, someday. But for now, receptive language takes the lead. Still, the July week sounds great. I’ll keep my eyes and ears open for information about that.
    I hope you stick around and enjoy the blog.
    Thanks again,
    David

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