A Day in the Life of a Yiddish Learner.

Right about now I ought to be writing a new blog post. A week ago, after setting the Proletpen poets aside, I chose Celia Dropkin as the subject of our poetry reading group, and we had a wonderful time with her. This week, H. Leivick.

But I also have a full plate today. It’s easy to let writing take over. When writing about learning, it’s easy to put the cart in front of the horse (more about carts and horses in a moment). Writing is fun and time consuming, but composing more English essays will not learn me any Yiddish.

So here’s my things-to-do list, along with links to a couple of past posts. To the Devoted Dozen, who already read all my blog posts, there will be nothing new, but those who have joined recently might find something of interest:

1. I started out this project hoping to be able to translate my grandfather’s children’s books. I actually have now completed a rough decoding of his book Robert’s Ventures (The Adventures of Robert). Call it Step One. But these are handwritten on individual photocopied pages. I did it this way so I could have small units to tackle. A whole book is intimidating, but one sentence, then one paragraph at a time, I made my first pass through the whole 180 page book.

I’m looking forward to Step Two, which will be to run each chapter by an expert Yiddish speaker to clarify words or idioms I couldn’t find in the dictionary, or might have misunderstood, and to Step Three, which will be to render the English into fluid, good writing. But before I can do that, I have to type what I have into the computer, and identify all the questions I have. It’s a bit of a slog. But it happens, today I am typing in the exact section I described in my first blog post, nearly six months ago.

2. I am also working on translating a little collection of essays my grandfather published on the fate of the Yiddish secular schools, as a follow-up to the Forverts article of a month ago. Here, the going is tougher. I am able to read children’s literature, but when it comes to academic writing, I am not really ‘reading’ so much as looking up words, one at a time. So, though I am actually eager to learn more about what my Zeidy believed about the crisis in Yiddish education in the 1950s, I will just plug along today and translate a half page of that 30 page booklet.

For some reason, this difficulty in making the leap from children’s to adult writing just reminded me of something that happened at either age ten or eleven. I had seen the movie Oliver! the year before, and we owned and loved the record of the soundtrack. So, bored as usual in my fourth or fifth grade class, I decided to set about reading Dickens’ Oliver Twist. I was a good and avid reader, but it was immediately apparent that this was too much for me. I was furious. Why would a writer use all those big words and complicated sentences? He ought to write so that a normal educated reader can understand! I determined that I disliked Charles Dickens. Unfortunately, that attitude stuck, even though a few years later I could have read him with ease. To this day, I’ve only read one Dickens novel.

3. I have learned a lot by looking up one word at a time. But I am wondering whether it’s time to get a little more systematic. So I’ve started reading College Yiddish, by Uriel Weinreich. I’ll read a half chapter today. I’m still focused almost entirely on receptive language, so I’m not doing any of the writing exercises. But I want to try to go back and pick up some of the details I’ve ignored. For example, right at the outset, I learn, to my bafflement, that adjectives modifying neuter nouns are declined differently when they are accompanied by an indefinite vs. definite article. A groys land, but, Der groyse land. Huh. With one exception, or maybe two, I’ve written little in this blog about the technical details of learning the language. While I see it as a journal of my thoughts while learning Yiddish, not as a language-learning blog, I do think it would be useful to dig in a little more from time to time. For example, I’m slowly collecting a list of Hebrew-origin prepositions. I know. You can’t wait.

The details of adjective declension might not matter much, but I want to try to be at least aware of some of them. Otherwise, for example, I might read a poem and think the poet is using some new coinage to play with number or gender, when they’re just using the language correctly, or I might fail to notice if a writer develops a character by having someone use the language badly. There’s a moment in Robert where a baby is playing with his feet and delightedly says the equivalent of ‘footses’. You have to know the rules to know when someone is messing with them.

4.  I am slowly making my way through my newly arrived (and recently lauded) book, A Question of Tradition, by Kathryn Hellerstein. This book is about women poets in Yiddish. It turns out, her book is structured around a discussion of a wonderful anthology that stuck to my fingers during the Great JCC Library Purge of 2014. So I’ve been browsing that again, too. It arrived too late for our reading of Molodovsky, but I was able to skim Hellerstein’s take on Dropkin just before we read her poems. It raised some interesting questions for me. Both Dropkin and that library are potential grist for an upcoming post.

5. My other reading group is reading Yehoash’s Chumesh. We meet this afternoon. Last week the portion contained the instructions for building the Ark of the Covenant. It gave me little except for the words for acacia wood, and lapis lazuli, both of which I instantly forgot. Call me skeptical, but I don’t think these are going to come up very often.

On the other hand, when E and I first started reading together outside class, we started with Di Heldn fun Khelm, the Yiddish version of my grandfather’s Wise Men of Helm. This was the seed that eventually grew to become our two afternoon reading groups. We started reading about wagons going from Chelm to Shedlitz carrying grain to be milled. In the second paragraph on the first page of the book, my Zeidy described how one Jew walked along the side of the wagon holding the horse by the bridle (tsayml), while another sat on the coachbox and held the reins (leytses).

We laughed at the technical detail. How often were we really going to need the words for ‘reins’ or ‘bridle’? Turns out that we have seen those words again and again, in Bontshe Shvayg (when Bontshe stops a runaway horse), in the Torah (Pharaoh’s charioteers), and in Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories. Horses and horse handling were an integral part of life in Yiddishland, and until recently, everywhere. My grandfather was born in a place where they didn’t know from cars yet. On the other hand, they did know how to work. I better get to mine.

horse words

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