Notes from a Yid #1
By Howard Glass
When my father, of blessed memory, was eighty two, he underwent open heart surgery, receiving a then experimental aortic valve replacement, a couple of coronary bypasses, and a permanent pacemaker. He sailed through surgery, attributing his rapid uncomplicated recovery to his “positive attitude.” Arriving home, he rapidly declined, losing interest in food, reading and conversation. My mother, refusing to have him exit on her watch, force fed him, as she put it “twenty one meals per week.” In those days, thanks to the invention of the cell phone, I spoke to my father every day, while riding home. His depression was evident, and my mother and I discussed what might be done to
stem his decline. I was teaching Sunday school at that time, using the history of Israel as a framework for my own agenda of teaching Peace to my sixth graders. As part of my curriculum, I taught them Yiddish words and phrases, bits and pieces gleaned from my childhood where Yiddish was spoken by my parents as code, as a means of having a free conversation in earshot of their three sons.
My father was the arbiter of Yiddish for my large extended family, receiving frequent calls to provide a phrase or meaning, his first language having never left him. I left his nutrition to my mother, and hit on the idea of asking him for material for my limited excursions into a language I could not speak. He grew excited, and sent me reams of handwritten pages; lists of words, phrases, and even poems, in “Yinglish,” as he liked to call a English/Yiddish amalgamation. Although I fully credited my mother with saving his life, he became animated by this new project, which we continued for a year or two, far beyond the time it was needed, and far more material than I could ever use.
My parents claimed to speak two distinct Yiddish dialects. My father’s proper Yiddish apparently derived from his family being middle class, if such a thing existed in a shtetl. His father was some sort of middle man between grain growers and millers. An entirely apocryphal tale related him putting his boots by the door at night, and finding them shined in the morning. As he was murdered during a pogrom well before his thirtieth birthday, the tale remained just that.
My mother’s Yiddish was handed down from her mother, my Bubby Cahn, an earthy woman with a true zest for life, for whom a Jewish life was the only option. From my Bubby came my mother’s favorite phrases, “Red Yiddish, Zug Gornisht”— “speak Yiddish, say nothing,” or the ever popular “You can’t say anything nice in Yiddish.” Indeed, can still recall at least five distinct ways my father referred to his sons, all of which translated loosely as “idiot.”
Yiddish is by no means a dying language. It is the first and preferred language of the Hasidic community in Brooklyn, the fastest growing Jewish sect in the United States. Yiddish is part of all of us, whether we embrace it or cover our ears when it is spoken.
I conclude with a poem courtesy of my dad, whose laugh and twinkle of eye I would give so much to hear once more.
“A boy stood on the burning deck
His feet as hot as Latkes.
He burned the only pants he had,
So he wears his sister’s Gotkas.”
Nb – Gotkas = underpants