Di fon mit di shtern

Di fon mit di shtern


Oy vey, can you see all the tuml that has been raised over such a gornisht issue as "The Star-Spangled Banner" in Spanish?

You would think that no one ever thought of singing the impossible song in a language other than English. Indeed, as many in the Blogosphere and in Upper Punditville have pointed out, "the Jews" — all of them — taught their children to speak English. They never would have done such a dastardly thing. Not ever.

Well, as is often the case, truer words have yet to be spoken. Actually, there are at least two versions of "The Star-Spangled Banner" in Yiddish (also versions of God Bless America and — shreklekh as it sounds —"The Battle Hymn of the Republic" ("zingtsche zingtsche halleluya" begins the refrain). Here is one of those versions (just the first stanza and refrain, although the entire "Star-Spengld Bener fun Frensis Skat Ki"—that is how it is titled—was translated; oh, you did not know there were other stanzas? Gevalt!).

O zog! konstu zen in likht fun sof nakht,

Vos mir hobn bagrist in demer-shayn mit freyd?

Di shtrayfn, di shtern — in flaker fun shlakht

Fun di shuts-vent mir hobn mit bang in blik bagleyt.

Un der blits fun raket, un der knal fun kanon

Durkh der nakht gerufn hobn zey: es lebt di fon.

O zog! di fon mit di shtern iz zi nokh tsehelt

Iber land fun fraye un iber heym fun held?

At best, this is a shturem in a tshaynik; at worst, it is a hypocritical instance of political deflection.

Fuel prices are headed out of sight. People are taking to the streets on a range of issues, from the war, to Darfur, to illegal immigration. We have just gone through the worst month for allied casualties since Saddam Hussein was toppled. Congress cannot get its act together on any important issue; the White House cannot get its act together on any issue; and the Democrats cannot get any issue together on which to act.

What better way to deflect our attention from such veltlekh matters than a little old-fashioned flag-waving? And what better issue to do that with than the flag-waving song itself?

We want "Amurricans" to speak "Amurrican," period. The chutzpah that "they" should want to speak anything else. No true American should ever encourage such things in the public square. That is the president’s message and that, by God, is what many in Congress espouse.

Hmm. I remember a speech then-candidate George W. Bush made in August ‘000 in Philadelphia. "I made a great choice when I picked Dick Cheney," the man who would be president said that day to a group of cheering supporters. "He’s a solid man. He’s an honorable man. I am proud to call him friend and you will be proud to call him Mr. Vice President."

Well, regardless of what I would like to call Dick Cheney, that is what Candidate Bush had to say. You may ask, "What does that have to do with what you are writing about?"

Good question. On its face, nothing. I did forget to mention, however, that this quote is merely a rough translation. Bush gave that speech in Spanish because the crowd he was addressing was Hispanic. It is okay to ask people to vote for president and vice president in Spanish. Just do not let them take pride in their new country in Spanish.

So much for the hypocrisy angle. Let us turn our attention to the issue at hand: the notion that everyone but the Spanish learned to speak English and insisted that their children do.

We Jews, for one, ought not be the ones making such arguments.

Has anyone ever seen photographs of the Lower East Side from, say, four decades ago, or in the earliest part of the ‘0th century? (For that matter, has anyone been to Williamsburg lately?) You see posters in Yiddish, store signs in Yiddish, newspapers in Yiddish. It is the same story in photographs of Polish neighborhoods of the time, or German ones, or Greek ones. Nowadays, it is the case in Asian ones. Anyone needing a refresher course in reality should drive along Broad Avenue in Palisades Park.

Sure, the Jews learned to speak Aynglish, but they nevertheless spoke Yiddish almost exclusively. They learned just enough English to pass a citizenship test. Yiddish was their language.

And it was not they who taught their children English. They spoke Yiddish to their children. Their children picked up English on the street first and in school next; but they would still come home and speak Yiddish.

Yiddish was virtually the only language I spoke until I was 5 years old. I probably spoke some English, too; in fact, I would bet on it. On the other hand, I have no recollection of doing so because any English I spoke blended in with my Yiddish.

Jews have been doing this from time immemorial. We took Aramaic and made it into a Hebrew hybrid. We took Spanish and created Ladino. We took German and gave it a soul (and called it Yiddish).

It is true, of course, that many of the people of my generation, me included, wanted nothing to do with Yiddish once we discovered that there really were other choices available, but that was less because we wanted to be English speakers and more because we associated Yiddish with the ghetto and the Shoah, and that made it shameful to us. We may not want to admit that fact, but it is true nonetheless. Our language was Hebrew, the language of the pioneer; the language of the freedom fighter; the language of the miraculously reborn Jewish state; the language of Geula Gill and the Oranim Zabar Trio. Unfortunately, there were not many Hebrew speakers floating around, so many of us had to settle for our second choice — English.

The result? Hebrew is an unknown language for most Jews in the diaspora. Yiddish, meanwhile, almost entirely disappeared in a generation’s time, causing many of us khakhomim to sit up and realize we had lost something precious.

We made a mess of our own languages. Do we really want to push other people into making a mess of theirs?

Shem zikh for even thinking such a thing.