Thursday, January 22, 2009

To the women and men of St. Louis

I was just informed that Hannah Chervitz's grandmother (sorry, she didn't mention your name) and perhaps other members of the St. Louis Ethical Society an/or the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom were among my readers, so I'd like to devote this post to them.

Now my own grandparents spoke Yiddish. Sure, they also spoke Hebrew (at least the three I got to know, but I assume the fourth, who died in Jerusalem in 1941 also at least dabbled in it). They were also fluent in Russian on one side and Polish on the other. And there is some evidence that German, Romanian and English were also within their collective repertoire.

I never really cared for the Slavic languages they spoke. Of course, this was before I became a professional linguist. But with Yiddish I had sort of a love-hate relationship. I was never taught the language. Moreover, I was socialized to believe that I shouldn't know it. It may have been my paranoia, but apart from terms of endearment, such as ingale 'boy', ziser bukher 'sweet guy' and royte bekalakh 'red cheeks' (of course they're red, grandma; you just pinched them with all your might!), I felt that Yiddish was only spoken around me as a secret language. Only grownups (and not even all grownups) could speak and understand it. Being the smartass – or uberxuxem - that I was, in hindsight I would have expected myself to force myself to learn it and be my own little intelligence agency. But I guess I was too lazy. And too pissed. You don't want me to understand? Well I don't wanna understand you anyway!

Years later, when I only had one living grandparent left, I decided to take interest in Yiddish. I audited a Yiddish class at Penn, and in a dialectology class with Bill Labov, Hannah and I did a little research project based on Weinreich et al.'s Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry (there was no serious web site then; we used the actual hard copy). I then presented it and a version of it was published by the Berkeley Linguistics Society. I remember my father not quite understanding how I could write a paper about a language I didn't really speak. And my grandmother was already in her last days, so I never really got to speak any Yiddish with her. Not that I can hold conversation in it really.

Hannah's note to me about her grandmother reminded me of my "missed opportunity" to learn a language. It was also timely, because on Sunday I'll be visiting the National Museum of Language in College Park, MD, where Miriam Isaacs will be speaking about "[her] story with Yiddish." 

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