By learning
Yiddish, a
mother and
daughter
embrace the
lives of their
ancestors
By Ellen Cassedy, Bridges
March/April 2002
TEN YEARS AGO, when my
mother died, I developed an urgent
desire to learn Yiddish. I couldn’t
save my mother from cancer, but
maybe I could help to save this
other precious Jewish thing. She
would have been surprised, to put it
mildly. In the Brooklyn household
where she grew up in the ’30s and
’40s, English held the place of
honor. Yiddish was about ignorance
and poverty. My mother used
Yiddish only occasionally to goof
around. In the kitchen: "Hand me a
shisl" (a bowl). On the phone: "The
woman’s a makhsheyfe" (a witch).
At the window: "a plokhe" (a
downpour).
Now she was gone. I had to learn
Yiddish. I signed up for evening
classes, plodded through textbooks,
and thumbed my Yiddish-English
dictionary till the binding broke. I
joined the National Yiddish Book
Center and visited the Workmen’s
Circle bookstore in New York. My
Aunt Manya and Uncle Will, who
still speak Yiddish at home, wrote
me letters. I logged on to the
Yiddish e-mail club, Mendele, and
sang along with Yiddish tapes in
the car.
Little by little, Yiddish became a
living presence in our household.
And when it came time for my
teenaged daughter Meg to prepare
for her bas mitsve, I suggested that
she, too, might like to study
Yiddish.
Why Yiddish rather than Hebrew?
Though Yiddish has at times been a
part of the Jewish religious
tradition, for me it’s most
meaningful as a part of worldly or
"everyday" Jewish culture. It’s the
vernacular that Meg’s foremothers
spoke in the kitchens, lanes, and
marketplaces of Poland, Latvia,
Lithuania, New York, and
Baltimore. It’s the language in
which great Jewish writers
conveyed new humanist ideas, and
that united activist Jews on both
sides of the Atlantic. Giving Meg a
taste of the daily lives of her
ancestors—in the shtetlekh (small
towns) of the Old World and the
tenements of the New—felt to my
husband, Jeff, and me like a
political act. It meant saying that
ordinary, secular Jewish culture
matters. That the daily tasks of
keeping house and making a living
deserve a place of honor in Jewish
history alongside the actions of
famous men. That to become a
Jewish adult, Meg needed to study
that history.
Meg decided that at her bas mitsve
she would read from the Torah, in
Hebrew, about the Jews’ last night
in Egypt. Then she would present
her Yiddish study of another, more
modern, exodus—the immigration
of a great multitude of European
Jews to America.
The day came. A hundred friends
and relatives assembled at my
husband’s family’s temple in
Baltimore. In memory of my
mother and Jeff’s father, Meg lit
candles and recited a lovely secular
blessing, in Yiddish, composed by
Judith Seid. "Zol di sheynkayt fun
zeyr lebn balaykhtn di doyres," she
chanted. ("May the beauty of their
lives shine from generation to
generation.")
The Torah service followed. Meg
recited in Hebrew, then began her
remarks in English interspersed
with Yiddish poems and songs. She
started with a poem by early-20thcentury Russian immigrant Eliezer
Shindler:
Undzer yidish
Undzer sphrakh
Farmogt dokh
Oytsres gor a sakh. . .
Our Yiddish
Our language
Does indeed possess
A wealth of treasures . . .
The treasures Meg chose to share
ranged from the happy song about
the joys of poverty to Polish writer
I.L. Peretz’s "Bontshe shvayg"
("Bontshe the Silent"), a scathing
tale that, in Meg’s words, "tells
Jews to wish for more than a good
breakfast—to stand up for
themselves instead of meekly
bowing down." She read from a
worker’s 1908 letter to the
Forward, New York’s Yiddishlanguage daily, about his struggle
to fight back against a tyrannical
boss. She read from Avrom Reisen’s
tale of the battle between the sexes,
concluding that "we must continue
to fight for equality."
One man came up at the end of the
service wiping his eyes. "I’m going
to have to send you the dry cleaning
bill for my handkerchief," he told
Meg. "You said that blessing just
the way my mother used to." Greatgreat-uncle Will whispered the
highest praise: "She doesn’t even
have an accent!"
For me, Yiddish—the embodiment
of the everyday, the profane—is
sacred. In part this is because for
my generation—and for Meg’s
—Yiddish is exotic, endangered. No
longer taken for granted, it has
become a precious thing, a treasure
we must honor and protect.
Meg deserves the last word:
"I’m glad I connected myself with
both the religious Jewish language
and the more everyday one. These
languages came alive to me. I plan
to pass on the knowledge of Yiddish
to my children, who, I hope, in turn
will pass it on to their children.
Sholem aleykhem and shalom!"
Utne Reader, 2007.
Originially from the Jewish
feminist magazine Bridges,
Spring 2000.
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Mother and Daughter Enjoy Yiddish Together