by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)
My parents were fiercely devoted to Yiddish, their beloved mother tongue. Both were Holocaust survivors and were incapable of distancing themselves from the past. Although they spoke Polish and some English, they would speak of their experiences and share their thoughts and memories in no language other than Yiddish. Only Yiddish, they would remark, could properly describe their emotions, inner turmoil, or unbridled joy. Their penchant for Yiddish carried over into our daily routines. It made little difference where or when, Yiddish was spoken nearly all of the time. Be it at home, in the park, or at the corner market, it was Yiddish, Yiddish, Yiddish, with only a word or two of English thrown in for good measure.
I became acutely aware that we were different from many of our neighbors shortly after moving into our apartment in Boston. For some reason, the contrasts became all the more evident whenever we rode the trolley. I was certain that the other passengers — you know, the regular Americans in the car — were staring in our direction as the strange, unfamiliar sounds of Yiddish emanated from where we sat. I felt embarrassed and ill at ease and urged my hapless parents to avoid using Yiddish and to please, please speak to me only in English. After all, most of my friends at the time conversed freely with their parents in English. Why should it be any different for me? Their reaction was nearly always the same. They looked at one another for a moment or two, chuckled in unison and murmured in Yiddish that I most assuredly had been led astray by an evil spirit (Dybbuk), a troublemaker whose mission was to take advantage of young innocent children and lead them away from menschlichkeit, the path of proper behavior and decency.
And so it went for a number of years until one day the Dybbuk decided to leave my person, perhaps seeking greener pastures elsewhere. I suddenly found myself being drawn closer to Yiddish at about the time I left home to begin my undergraduate studies out of state. A course in Jewish history was indeed an eye opener and got me to thinking about Yiddish and its impact on us as a people. Attending lectures and reviewing books relating to our long and turbulent history both confirmed and reinforced much of what my parents would often speak of. I had previously never appreciated the immensity of the hardship, isolation, denigration, and danger that many European Jews were forced to contend with during previous generations. As a people, we were subjected to forced conversions, expulsions, ghettos, isolation, and murderous pogroms. Yiddish, the language of our forbearers, in concert with its literary and cultural outgrowths, proved to be critical in helping keep us unified and intact during these most difficult of times. Yiddish infused us with hope and laughter, tenacity and perseverance.
During school breaks, I found myself returning home with a newfound appreciation for all that our people had endured in generations past. I began speaking Yiddish to my parents and their friends and actually enjoyed doing so. I befriended a number of individuals who enjoyed dropping a sentence or two of Yiddish into the conversation. But perhaps most gratifying is the role Yiddish has played in my professional life. Having a medical practice in the New York metropolitan area means contact with a large immigrant population from the former Soviet Union as well as a number of Holocaust survivors. Yiddish comes in quite handy considering that many of the former group speak little or no English while the latter simply relish the opportunity to schmooze a bit in Yiddish
Renowned linguist and Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich was said to have remarked that much like the Jewish people, Yiddish will find a way to outwit history. Yiddish exemplifies how we, a stiff necked people, have learned to survive against all odds by remaining tenacious, resourceful and devoted to one another. Aaron Lansky, founder of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, has miraculously managed to save thousands upon thousands of Yiddish books from near certain destruction. In doing so, he seeks to assure that we continue to remember and has observed that “historical amnesia is a dangerous malady, especially for a people whose identity is as dependent on historical memory as ours.” Let’s take the time to occasionally look inward and remember that Yiddish is not only a reflection of our past but of our future as well.
Sheldon P. Hersh, an Ear, Nose and Throat Physician with a practice in the New York metropolitan area, is the author of Our Frozen Tears (http://tinyurl.com/kuzlscb), as well as the co-author of The Bugs Are Burning,a book on the Holocaust.