July 1, 2013 | Yiddish

Yeah, Yiddish!

In which I begin my last language (for now).

Yiddish is the seventeenth language I will have studied in four years, and I confess I am a little worn out. I have been collecting Yiddish books for a while now, in anticipation of this segment, but my brain is rebelling a bit against studying yet another language and abandoning yet another language.

Suck it up, brain.

I will put some pictures of my books in this entry so you can see what I am planning to try out.

Basic Yiddish by Rebecca Margolis, Published by Routledge

Basic Yiddish by Rebecca Margolis, Published by Routledge

Yiddish was a late addition to this project. Most of the languages on my schedule not only are significant to New York City, but also remain world languages spoken by large numbers of people.

Today Yiddish has only about a million speakers, and, like Irish, it is considered endangered.

My relationship to Yiddish is turning out to be more personal than I expected. Late last year I spit in a tube and sent my saliva off to a company called 23andMe. They do genetic testing. You send in your sample, they analyze you, and they stick you in their database of results for other people who have spit in tubes around the world.

It is not legal to spit and mail from New York State, so back in 2012 when I did this, I had to go to New Jersey to mail my sample (I promise you this story is going somewhere). I got on the subway with Pimsleur lessons (I forget what language, but probably Chinese), then transfered to the Path train to Hoboken, pimsling all the way, got off the train at Hoboken, popped into the post office, and mailed my sample.

Colloquial Yiddish by Lily Kahn

Colloquial Yiddish by Lily Kahn

Dirty Yiddish!

Dirty Yiddish!

For you lawbreaker types who don’t understand why I crossed state lines to mail my spit, well, I had to sign a pact online that I would obey this law, and I figured the U.S. Postal Service was familiar with these packages, so I decided to do as I was told. Though I did collect my sample in New York, in violation of the contract. I mean, what am I supposed to do, drool into a tube on a New Jersey Path train?

I don’t think that would go over well. 

The results came back informing me that I was half Ashkenazi Jew. I don’t think too many people in my family doubted that, but it had never been officially confirmed, and there was a complicated situation involving grandparents and Jewishness and possible non-Jewishness and disowning and ultimately a not very specific sense of origin. 

The other thing is, although I have devoted much time to studying Jewish history, particularly the Holocaust, I am pretty clueless about Jewishness itself. I have often read about Ashkenazi Jews, but I didn’t connect that reading to me. Until I saw those 23andme results, I didn’t realize that that was what I was. Fifty percent of me, anyway.

A Dictionary from Indiana University Press; I'm a Little Afraid of This One

A Dictionary from Indiana University Press; I’m a Little Afraid of This One

Anyway, my point is, Yiddish is/was the language of Askenazi Jews! I will talk about this further when I have read something more authoritative to supplement the feeble supply of Yiddish information presently residing in my brain. 

On a related note, I went to a party two nights ago where I think just about everyone was Jewish, and some of the older people there were talking about how their grandparents spoke Yiddish. I thought, cool!

Then I went home and it suddenly occurred to me that probably my ancestors had spoken Yiddish, too, so I asked my father, who confirmed that his maternal grandmother did in fact speak Yiddish.

When I added this language to my project, I didn’t really think about any kind of personal connection. That may sound weird, but I didn’t. I wasn’t raised in any kind of Jewish tradition.

Now that I know about and am paying a little more attention to my family roots, the story of the language has become more meaningful.

I will study up and see what happens!

Comments (5)

Alex • Posted on Sun, July 07, 2013 - 2:28 am EST

At least Irish & Yiddish have it better than an endangered group of Eastern European languages called the Sami languages. They’re spoken in regions closer to Russia, and have been dying out - its rarest member, Ter Sami, claimed only two fluent speakers in 2010 (and they were both elderly). Those languages have largely been wiped out through Soviet collectivization, which forbade the use of Sami languages in schools and such and forced the Sami people to learn and speak Russian. So no, I don’t think there will be Pimsleur Ter Sami or anything like that, not anytime soon.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sun, July 07, 2013 - 11:21 am EST

Political history and language history are much intertwined. Thank you for this post, Alex. It is always sad to think of people not being allowed to speak their own language.

By the way, even Yiddish doesn’t have Pimsleur, and I am suffering the lack. It is my first language of 17 where there aren’t even SOME lessons!

Alex • Posted on Sun, July 07, 2013 - 5:26 pm EST

I actually went looking for Pimsleur Yiddish. Sad that they don’t have it! I bet they’ll get to it, though.

It’s fascinating to see how both kinds of history impact each other, and it has some sad consequences for multiculturalism. The Sami speakers ended up doing what’s called a language shift to Russian, and - get this - apparently the Ter Sami language was rendered so far gone because the Soviets moved its native speakers onto military bases after declaring their old villages to be “perspectiveless”. I’ve never heard that word before. It definitely sounds like a Soviet rationale, though. Words are funny like that.

Faith Jones • Posted on Wed, July 10, 2013 - 10:28 am EST

Congratulations on beginning your study of Yiddish! As an advanced Yiddish student, allow me to offer these recommendations:

- the Margolis book and Sheva Zucker’s books are great for self-study
- do not be afraid of the amazing new dictionary from IUP, but you also need the Weinreich dictionary. The IUP dictionary is Yiddish to English only; you’ll want English to Yiddish while you’re learning
- take classes too: at the Workmen’s Circle since you’re in New York, or take an online class from the amazing Paula Teitelbaum—.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) . She can do one-on-one tutorials or put together a small class at your level, and all you need is a Google account and a web-cam

Welcome to the community of Yiddish learners. We love to meet new folks. Not everyone in our community is knowledgeable about Jewish subjects, many are not Jewish, and those who are span the religious and political spectrum. We come together around language and across differences.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sat, July 13, 2013 - 12:34 pm EST

Faith, thank you so much for these great suggestions! I am on chapter 7 in the Margolis book right now, and it is keeping me up at night. I am seriously loving Yiddish!

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