I started elementary school being completely bilingual in English and Yiddish. It was a result of growing up in a four-room apartment shared by my maternal grandparents who spoke only Yiddish; my parents who chose to speak only English; my maternal aunt, only six years my senior, who rejected the Yiddish language because it interfered with her adoration of Frank Sinatra; and me.
When I turned 1′, my parents and I moved out of that apartment and moved into another of the same size in the same neighborhood but, this time with my paternal grandparents and a paternal uncle. Linguistically, my situation did not change at all. Fluent Yiddish was still part of my daily experience.
That living arrangement lasted only a year. The younger adults found it difficult to coexist with the older ones. One day, my mother got into a heated argument with my grandfather over his overzealous protection of kashrut. He became angry when he saw my mother warming a small pot of milk, laced with lemon and honey to treat my chest cold, at the same time that Grandma was cooking the Shabbos chicken soup. Grandpa expressed his outrage in Yiddish and my mother rebuked him in English. The competing words and emotions, spewed out of the language mills of two different worlds, symbolized the occasional fractiousness of the Jewish/American experience for the new immigrants.
Not long after, my mother convinced my father to find another apartment. It was time, she said, to live apart from their parents. We soon found a very small three-room apartment that allowed us a new sense of independence. However, I did miss the sound of Yiddish. My grandparents were no longer there. I had come to equate Yiddish with a feeling of warmth, even though that warmth occasionally overheated. Part of the fun of Yiddish was that it seemed to encourage pixiness and mind games. Serious conversations often bubbled over into humor. In contrast, English seemed more linear and less playful. The gargling sounds were missing. It may be a myth that the structure and sounds of language can predispose its speakers to whimsy and irony. But it did seem that way to me. Maybe my longing for and respect for Yiddish had more to do with its importance to my grandparents. It reminded them of the close community and fellowship of Jewish life in the shtetl. They had grown up, married, and raised children there. Yet they wished never to return. Life was too difficult there, even dangerous.
The language and culture that my grandparents had brought to America was a relic of that poor town with dirt roads and bitterly cold winters. Their Yiddish language, religion, and Jewish culture served as an anchor of stability in a new world that surrounded them with a babble they did not understand and with beliefs and values that confused and threatened them. If Yiddish and their belief system helped to keep them afloat in a sea of change, I found it important to honor and maintain both.
No sooner had I committed myself to restoring my Yiddish skills than it became apparent that it would not be easy. In the absence of a daily exposure to Yiddish, I was losing my ability to speak it. As the years went by, my focus shifted to career pursuits and raising a family. I soon concluded that saving my grandparents’ language by keeping it alive in me was a goal that I was not likely to achieve. I convinced myself that Yiddish was a dying or perhaps already a dead language. While Yiddish may have replenished my grandparents’ spirits in a puzzling environment, it no longer had the power to nurture me.
I carried this sense of failed mission for several years until Aaron Lansky established the National Yiddish Book Center on the Hampshire College campus in Amherst, Mass. With several helpers, Lansky collected one and a half million Yiddish books that were still in the possession of the remnants of European Jewry. The Yiddish language, on life support for so long, had begun to stir. While some Yiddish was always spoken in Israel, yeshivas, and other enclaves of Orthodox jewry, it now began to spread. Religious institutions of higher education, as well as secular colleges and universities, synagogues, temples, and other Jewish centers have established Yiddish study programs. The International Association of Yiddish Clubs recently held a "A Tribute to Yiddish" conference in Teaneck.
The Jewish Community Center of Paramus, where I am a member, has been conducting such programs for several years. Rabbi Emeritus Aryeh Gotlieb leads a Yiddish conversation group there. Many who attend are fluent in Yiddish. A few others are somewhat fluent but manage to keep up. The center also serves adults who have little knowledge of Yiddish but want to learn. Jennie Freilich, the course instructor, offers formal instruction for those who still feel the appeal of a language that accompanied our ancestors on their travel to a new world.
As for the role of my grandparents in all of this, I am happy to be back restoring a language that they bestowed on me with love when I was a child. They would have been happy to know that I was still working at being a Yiddish speaker. It gives me a sense of connection to know that what was important to them a long time ago is still important to me.
Leonard S. Blackman is a professor emeritus of education and psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University. He lives in Paramus.