July 3, 2013 | Yiddish
A Venerable Yiddish Institution
In which I visit the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in Chelsea.
I began this project four years and two days ago. In the early days of it, I used to listen to Pimsleur language lessons on my runs.
I eventually stopped, deciding it was too hard to do both well simultaneously. And, as I kept getting injured running—which had never happened to me before in decades of running—I actually got concerned that the mental effort of the Pimsleur lessons might be causing me to tense up in some weird and inexplicable way.
Last night I decided to retest that no-Pimsleur-running theory, because I can get so much more done, of both, if I can just do them together.
The problem is, there is no Pimsleur for Yiddish. In fact, this is the first of 17 languages I have studied for which no Pimsleur whatsoever is available, and I am traumatized.
As a backup plan, I decided to take Hebrew instead. After all, if Yiddish vocabulary is 25 percent Hebrew-Aramaic, wouldn’t a Hebrew review be helpful?
I couldn’t get my Nano to work, so I had to go with my iPod, which is too big to run with in my opinion, plus it was raining and I didn’t want to ruin it. Desperate to take Pimsleur with me at all costs, I stuck the iPod in a plastic sandwich bag and then put it in my running bra, which after one mile clearly was not going to work for reasons I won’t delve into, so I ended up running most of my seven-mile run carrying a baggie-encased iPod in my right hand.
Despite the iPod logistics challenges, the run went great. Amazingly great, in fact.
Harlem Meer, with an Egret Skulking in the Background
Me Pimsling, with the Plastic Sandwich Baggie Protector in the Foreground.
Here’s what I learned: the Hebrew in my head is not dead. Stuff is in there. It may be dormant, but it is not dead. That is what I had hoped, but I truly didn’t know.
The first time I did Hebrew Pimsleur starting in November 2011, I had to redo lessons multiple times. It was hard.
This time, however, I flew through. I got everything right while running in hot and humid weather. It went way better than I had expected, and I got gleeful. I was like the annoying girl who keeps raising her hand in class and going “oh-oh-oh” to try to get the teacher to call on her.
The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe
Now I am starting to think that I might be able to remember more of more languages at a time than I thought. I am pretty excited.
In the afternoon I had an appointment at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, located at 15 West 16th Street in Chelsea. They have Yiddish classes and the largest collection of Yiddish-language materials in the world! Plus much more, which I will be exploring in the coming weeks.
The Institute was founded in 1925 in Vilna, Poland. During World War II, it relocated to New York City, where it has resided ever since. YIVO’s mission is “to preserve, study and teach the cultural history of Jewish life throughout Eastern Europe, Germany and Russia.”
YIVO is very central to Yiddish studies in the world. I know this just three days into my Yiddish unit, because my various non-YIVO materials keep referring to it. The staff I met with at the institute were welcoming and encouraging, and I feel excited about studying the language. Yiddish weaves together multiple strands of my past linguistic experiences, and it also connects to my family history, as I have said, in ways I didn’t expect.
The YIVO Library
My First Apartment in New York Was Here
On the way from my meeting back to the 2/3 subway line, I passed the first apartment I had ever lived in in New York City, just a block away from YIVO on West 16th Street.
My grandmother—the one whose mother spoke Yiddish—was worried about my living here in Chelsea back then. My grandmother had been born in Brooklyn, and the last time she had lived in the city, Chelsea was a dangerous neighborhood. By the time I arrived (1990), that was no longer the case, though I don’t think I ever convinced her of that.
New York mutates faster than one could ever document. New languages might have arrived here this very day!