Tag Archives: Yiddish

A Proper Home

by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

While growing up in a Yiddish speaking home, I was often witness to the respect and adoration given to the Yiddish books that once graced our small bookcase. It goes without saying that prayer books, bibles and other holy texts were held in high esteem, but books written in Yiddish, the mameloshen (mother tongue), came in a close second. Like many Eastern European Jews, my parents had a particularly strong attachment to books written in Yiddish. Whatever the theme or intended message, these books were often afforded special status not only because they were written in Yiddish but because Yiddish utilizes Hebrew script, the very same letters found in all of our sacred texts.

More often than not, many of these Yiddish books were passed on to my parents by either aged or sickly friends and neighbors who simply wanted their treasured books to take up residence in a proper home. Yiddish books, after all, were like beloved relatives who detailed our long and often difficult history. I remember how we always removed and replaced these books with the utmost care so as not to injure their often spindly, dilapidated spines and worn bodies. In our home, we read these books primarily on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays when there was ample opportunity to lay on the couch, close one’s eyes and perhaps take a solemn journey back in time.

History has a way of repeating itself and perhaps is meant to do so. A short while back, I was approached by a few acquaintances and patients asking if I would be willing to take possession of their Yiddish books. Some followed my advice and sent their books to the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts while others would not hear of it. This latter group wanted their books to reside in a warm loving home rather than in an “orphanage for Yiddish books”.

I remember an elderly gentleman who, only recently, was seated in my examination room. He began speaking as soon as I entered. “I have to talk to you about my Yiddish books,” he began. “I know you speak and read Yiddish. So, doesn’t it make sense for them to be with you? They mean so much to me. I can’t just throw them out. Please, come to my home. The books will be waiting for you.”

His pleas were repeated with ever increasing urgency. How could I possibly refuse this clearly distraught gentleman? He was concerned about the fate of his beloved Yiddish books now that he had sold his house and was about to move to a small apartment where there was simply no room for his books. Aware of how much this request meant to him, I agreed to come by that very night and take possession of the box of Yiddish books that, I was told, was silently awaiting my arrival. As I left his home carrying the box, I heard a long tremulous sigh follow me to the door. It was an unmistakable declaration of sadness at seeing his beloved friends leave, accompanied by a sense of relief that they would at least have a proper home.

Since then, in addition to a few books that once belonged to my parents, I have accumulated a fair number of Yiddish books as I found it difficult to refuse those pleading on behalf of their loved ones. And so, just about every Sabbath and Jewish holiday, I’ve gotten into the habit of carefully taking one of these aged volumes in hand to reacquaint myself with many of the words and phrases that no longer see the light of day.

Much like aged relatives, these books speak volumes of survival and adaptation and give voice, as well, to immense pride and joy. Each time I’m done and get ready to close one of these books, I start to wonder who will be next in line? Who will be willing to accept books that are written in a strange language dealing with topics that have little or no relevance to most people? I’ll ask around when the time comes, but, apart from the praiseworthy mission of the Yiddish Book Center, I fear there will be no takers.

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.

 

 

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Shabbat in Rehab

Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)

“Shalom” I called through the open door. 

The couple stopped and turned toward the door in one movement.  I beckoned to them and invited them to come into my room.

It was my first day in a rehab center following orthopedic surgery. 

The couple was clearly Chabad.  I could be sure of that from the man’s worn but pressed and clean black jacket, shtreimel hat, and the ubiquitous payes – grey sidelocks cascading over his ears.  The tzitzit were clearly visible below the hem of a starched white shirt. 

His wife, a fading beauty, wore a long sleeved print dress and a brown curly sheytel (wig.)  It was late afternoon on a Friday and I assumed they were making loving kindness visits to Jewish patients.

After a few moments of friendly conversation, the woman offered me a miniature challah from a bag which sagged with many more.  Her husband told me proudly that she rose early Friday mornings and baked one hundred of them to distribute to patients in hospitals and nursing homes.  He examined the lighting in the room and explained how I could use the switches to simulate Shabbat candle lighting and gave me the exact time.  I don’t know if this was a Chabad pilpul decision or if our creative Talmud makes these allowances, notwithstanding the lack of electricity.  We are clearly a people who make it possible to adapt ritual under any circumstances.

I was in the rehab center six weeks. They arrived punctually every Friday afternoon with the challah and the time to light Shabbat candles.  I had asked on their first visit if they spoke Yiddish as it is always a source of great pleasure for me to converse in that artful and descriptive language, so he and I had very satisfactory conversations in Yiddish.

On my last Friday night in rehab I told them I would not be seeing them again as I was going home the next day.  My husband was in the room and the Chabad gentleman asked him if he would put on tefillin (phylacteries) in thankfulness for my recovery.  My husband replied, somewhat embarrassed, that he had never done that.  The man answered, “Well, then, it will be a double mitzvah,” and my husband, much to my surprise, said “of course.”

The gentleman put a kippah on my husband’s head and wound the phylacteries around his fingers, his arm, all in the prescribed ritualistic process, and placed the box that contained bible verses on his forehead in the centuries old appropriate manner.  My husband repeated the prayers and the tefillin were removed.

After the couple left with many good wishes, I turned to my husband and said, “I’m shocked that you, a lifelong skeptic, agreed to put on phylacteries.”

“How could I refuse,” my husband said in a soft voice.  “They were so gentle and sincere.”

Janice L. Booker is a journalist, author of four books, including The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, an instructor in creative non-fiction writing at University of Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia radio talk show host, and a free lance writer for national publications.

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Yiddish, A Look Inward

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.

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My Yiddish Name

By Leah Klahr (Lawrence, NY)

My middle name is Bryna, a Yiddish name that probably stems from the word broyn, which means brown. For many years, I carried the name with resentment. To me, the obviously Yiddish name reeked of an outdated and simplistic culture, a culture I viewed as distant from my perception of life. Though I rarely disclosed the existence of my middle name, I felt as if everyone who met me could immediately sense its strong scent and trace it back to me. Yet despite my disdain, I somehow sensed a deep connection to my Yiddish name, the name which had been my great grandmother’s before it was mine. It had quietly slipped into the core of my being, and while I continued to resent its sound and meaning, Bryna began to symbolize a secret and essential part of my identity.

This past summer, I chose to learn more about the Yiddish in me and my people. My interest led me to a Jewish literature program at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. Together with other high school students, I entered the realm of Yiddish literature, and discovered that the Yiddish culture is far from simplistic. Yiddish embodies the continuing story of the Jewish People. Spoken for nearly one thousand years of Jewish history, it carries unwavering faith and adherence to tradition; it carries separateness; it carries words, sounds, and influences that managed to creep into crevices of the Jewish heart. Yiddish carries the large, frightening questions that knocked on shtetel doors, questions which scratched upon ancient, unbroken promises of faith; it carries the exhilaration of the new and uncharted; it carries the poetry of secularized writers who refused to forget the mother tongue; it carries survival, and the unending question of what it means to live as a Jew.

Together with other students, I discovered that Yiddish is not just a bridge through which we can connect to our past. It is the animated train of Sholom Aleichem’s Railroad Stories, merging the past and the future, transporting us  to new places, and connecting us to a world of old.

Bryna. Brown like earth. Like the ground that stood as witness to pogroms and ghettoes and death camps. Like the nature that is silent when we most want it to speak. Like the soil where broken life is transformed into creation. Like the synthesis of diverse creatures and life. Brown, the color of the earth that sustains us.

I had always perceived my Yiddish name as a remnant of a dying culture, as an unfortunate- sounding relic of the sturdy Jewishness of my ancestors. And while there is truth in such a perception, it is only a part of what my name symbolizes. Bryna represents my own struggles between the worlds of tradition and change. It represents the questions and identity that knocks heads with  Leah, the mother of Jewish faith, the name by which I am known. It represents the shtetel inside of me, and it also represents my struggle to escape its sometimes constricting walls. Bryna is the continuous reminder that you can take a Jew out of the shtetel, but you cannot take the shtetel out of a Jew. And though the truth of this adage had once invoked a sense of resistance within me, it is now a truth that I embrace like an old friend.

Bryna is still the name that I hide from the world. However, it is only seemingly hidden. My middle name is tied to my every thought and action; its presence in my life is indispensable. And yet, I refuse to be publicly called by it. Perhaps this paradox embodies the nature of the name, and the language and culture it implies. I am a searching Jew, still grappling with the multiple narratives and tensions of my identity. Bryna ensures that I will never stop searching. I am Leah; I am Bryna.

Leah Klahr is a current senior at Stella K. Abraham High School for Girls. She lives in Lawrence, New York, with her parents, four sisters, and one brother. She loves literature, and is especially passionate about fairy-tales. Leah has worked as the Editor-in-Chief of her school newspaper, The Looking Glass, and her work has been published in Teenink Magazine, and Fresh Ink for Teens.

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The Circle of Life

 by Barbara Krasner (Somerset, NJ)

Yiddish births my mama’s mother tongue
Yiddish silences my mama at death
Yiddish curls around the circle of life
Yiddish comes up from beneath the dirt
Yiddish spits, curses, and insults
Yiddish grabs like my bubbe’s cheek pinch
It is the language I cannot speak.

Barbara Krasner holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her poetry and short fiction have appeared in or are forthcoming in Jewish Women’s Literary Annual, Poetica Magazine, Jewishfiction.net, Nimrod, Paterson Literary Review, Lips, Minerva Rising, The Copperfield Review and others. She teaches creative writing at William Paterson University in New Jersey. She is the author of Discovering Your Jewish Ancestors (Heritage Quest, 2001) and the forthcoming Goldie Takes a Stand! (Kar-Ben, Fall 2014), a tale of young Golda Meir. You can read more about her at her website www.barbarakrasner.com and blog The Whole Megillah – The Writer’s Resource for Jewish Story.

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