One of these three true stories is not like the others:
1. Sometime around New Year’s of 1990, I drove from central Florida down to Miami Beach with my fiancé Leslie. Leslie was not Jewish, and my Bubby Forman had let it be known that she would not be attending our wedding in May. Still, I wanted her to at least meet Leslie, and Leslie her. After the introductions, while Bubby began to prepare a snack, Leslie looked around the apartment. She noticed some old black-and-white photos on an end table.
“These are beautiful pictures, Who ar…”
“Dead! They’re all dead. The Nazis killed them.”
The stunned silence that followed eventually gave way to tea and blintzes, and then to chit-chat. After an appropriate amount of time had passed, we took our leave and drove back up the coast to Leslie’s folks. I was still appalled but also, being young, a little amused. “What I should have said,” I told Leslie, was, “Yes, Bubby. But if Hitler, may his name be blotted out, had not killed them, they would be dead by now anyway. What she asked was, who were they?” Over the next years, my grandmother came to be more accepting of Leslie, but we did not have a chance to visit her in Florida again, and we never learned more about the people in the pictures.
2. My wife’s death (from cancer) was not comfortable. She had chosen to die at home. Those closest to her, her children, her sisters, her mother and I, were all there by her side. She had not received adequate hospice nursing, and we had not really been trained adequately on how to keep her comfortable at the very end. My State of Connecticut employee health insurance, probably due to some religious objection, would not cover hospice care as such, but it is also likely that we didn’t understand the situation as well or advocate as forcefully as we could have. It may be it wouldn’t have helped.
Whatever the causes, her last twelve hours were all uncomfortable, and, intermittently, very painful. I’m sorry the kids were there to see it. I’m sorry her sisters and mother and I felt helpless. But above all, I’m sorry that her life ended that way, that when she wanted to go, she couldn’t do it easily, and that her last day, though she was surrounded by love and grateful for it, was still kind of awful.
Different people mourn differently. For one of Leslie’s sisters, the one who’d spent less time with her over her last years, the manner of her passing dominated her grief. Images of her sister dying, and of being unable to help, intruded and played in a continual loop. She relived that pain and that feeling of helplessness over and over again. For me, it represented one awful day at the end of a good life well lived, one failure to help her in the context of my having been a real help and comfort and pleasure to her (and exasperation, too, of course), over our quarter of a century together.
3. A daughter of Yiddish-speaking parents grew up in Brooklyn during the thirties and forties. Her father was an intellectual, and intelligence was the single most valued commodity in their world. But compared to her older brother, who was a prodigy, she was considered to be unexceptional. She made up her mind young that she would have to work harder than everyone else to achieve at the level she wanted to. She moved to the suburbs, had children, and was unfulfilled by the typical sixties suburban housewife existence. She got a degree in social work.
In an era when such children were thought to be unteachable and were routinely warehoused, she began working with autistic children. She included the mothers in that work, again in an era when mothers were casually blamed for their children’s mental illnesses, and seen as part of the problem. Her work flourished. She founded a school for special needs children that eventually grew to provide education, assessment, treatment, and a host of related services to all kinds of families. The school still operates, with 400 employees. Her own daughters went to Yiddish summer camp, but they did not learn the language.
Grief is made harder (“complicated” in the psychological jargon) by trauma and by ambivalence. My grandmother in the first story can stand for a whole generation of migrants who already felt ambivalent about having left their families. They had a special challenge, and a particularly acute form of survivor’s guilt when those whom they’d left behind were murdered. In the second story, it was extremely hard for both Leslie’s sisters, but the sister who did not have a strong memory bank of recent good times had more difficulty coping with the powerful and painful memory of her death. What a tragedy, when the ending is all that is remembered, or seems to be all that matters. As a young person, I repeatedly heard the words “Never forget” used to mean, “Never forget the holocaust”. Not once did I hear it used to mean, “Never forget the way the Jews of Europe had lived their lives.”
While the first and third stories are both about Yiddish, and all three stories are about memory, I intended the third story as the different one, because no one died in it. Assimilation was not an act of violence, and not an experience of pure loss, but a choice, a tradeoff that carried losses and gains. For most of the individual Jews, it worked brilliantly. For America, it worked brilliantly, too.
That was so long a setup for the points I want to make, I’m afraid this post is going to have to slop over into a Part Three. But when thinking about the analogy between grief and Yiddish language it is crucial to keep some things in mind. A language is not a person. Losing the essential substrate of a culture is deeper than losing an individual. But at the same time, we are taught that the individual human life is the unit of moral value. Any Jewish commandment can be violated to save a person’s life. If I could go back in time and rescue one person in exchange for the language, I would do it.
Another thing to keep in mind is that spoken Yiddish is actually neither dead, nor dying. Hundreds of thousands of Hasidic Jews speak the language. If we do not feel of the same tribe as them, that’s our problem, not the language’s. Outside Hasidism, young people, here and there, are learning to read and speak it. Many old people, though millions fewer than before, still can. By comparison, the Endangered Languages Project tracks languages that are actually dying. Many have no writing system. Some have only a handful of very old speakers, or fewer. Thousands of languages fared much worse than Yiddish when their people’s traditional way of life collided with modernity. At the link to the Endangered Languages Project, there is a world map. If you feel a keen sense of pain when you think that Yiddish might vanish, I strongly recommend you take a look at that map, and think about what each dot represents. When I found this website, it was brought powerfully home to me when I clicked on the dot nearest to where I live and got an audio recording of an old woman speaking Seneca.
Another thing to keep in mind, as I said above, is that assimilation was a choice (or rather, the accumulation of many choices) that largely worked out for the individuals who made it. My Yiddish teacher quotes Sholem Aleichim as saying that America was good for the Jews and bad for Judaism. As individual Jews we have lived in peace, knowing our children are not likely to be murdered or displaced for being Jews. We have been able to develop our individual talents. Many have made a lot of money. Many have lived fifteen or twenty years longer than their grandparents did. We’ve lived where we wanted, married whom we wanted, said what we’ve thought, all in comparative peace.
For America’s part, people who heard Yiddish as children and spoke English as adults have contributed something like 100 Nobel Prizes in science, medicine, economics, literature, and so on. They created all the most famous and loved comic book heroes, and shaped Broadway and Hollywood profoundly, have been senators and Supreme Court Justices, civil libertarians, and educators, including my aunt Judy, featured in my third story.
And for all that, though Yiddish is not a person, and is not dying, and though many of the people who let it lapse got what they wanted, it is still the case that much has been lost over the last two generations. As individual Jews we feel it. It is still the case that engagement with Yiddish brings these losses acutely into awareness. But there is awareness, and then there is awareness.