The remarkable Yiddish language and me
First Person

The remarkable Yiddish language and me

Tzivia Bieler

Tzivia, bottom left, with some of her family, including two of her children and her her machatonim.
Tzivia, bottom left, with some of her family, including two of her children and her her machatonim.

How I love the Yiddish language!

Would I be able to have a meaningful conversation in Yiddish? Unlikely.

Am I able to read Yiddish? Slightly.

Do I understand Yiddish? Somewhat.

So why do I treasure it? First, I love it because it was part of my childhood; second, I applaud the ingenuity of its creation; and third, I am convinced that no other language is able to duplicate the emotion, the richness, or the humor that Yiddish produces in a single word or expression.

Tzvia stands with her grandmother; they’re flanked by her much older brothers, Lobby and Moishe Rosen.

My connection to the language began with my Boubie. She and I shared a bedroom until I was about 11 years old. She spoke only Yiddish; I spoke only English. But somehow, though I have no recollection how, we understood each other perfectly. Years ago, I often thought about joining a Yiddish class; it’s still on my bucket list (I keep my bucket list dreams quite reasonable). I wanted Yiddish to remain a part of my life, so to speak; my love for those many remarkable words and expressions I learned while listening to my parents’ conversations when I was growing up has always been boundless. Any English translation pales by comparison, and in fact, occasionally makes little or no sense. Want one example? If a person is nagging you over and over again, and is driving you crazy, you might say to them: “Stop hocking me a chineck!!” Literally, that is translated as “stop hitting me with a tea kettle!”

And so you see my point. Yiddish was created by Ashkenazi Jews living mainly in Central and Eastern Europe. It is filled with Germanic grammar mixed with Hebrew and Aramaic and sprinkled with some Slavic and ancient Romance languages. What a creative idea it was! How could the Polish Jew talk to the Hungarian Jew or the Lithuanian Jew have a conversation with the German Jew? Of course! They spoke to each other through a common language that connected the Jewish people dispersed throughout foreign lands — the remarkable Yiddish language. Perhaps it was that same kind of intuitive creativity that came with the simple action of placing a little rock on the gravestone when leaving the cemetery. Many follow that custom even today, though they may have no idea why they do it. Years ago, when there were no telephones or computers or modern modes of communication as we know them, the relative from a town or shtetl many miles away in, let’s say, Poland, always knew that a relative from another town or shtetl had visited the grave when the little rock was seen on the top of the tombstone.

And then there is the language itself — a dramatic language, born of a different time, that keeps us smiling with its unparalleled descriptive vocabulary. Recently I was telling a friend a story about my son’s father-in-law, my beloved mechuten, who had passed away quite suddenly about two and a half months ago. My mechuten. Such an interesting Yiddish/Hebrew word. My mechuten. The spoken word flows from my lips with warmth and love and a sense of family. The word itself, of course, refers to the relationship between me and, in this case, the father of the woman my son married. (My daughter-in-law’s mother is my machateniste; my daughter-in-law’s parents as a unit are my machatonim.) And unlike English and other languages (aside, I believe, from Spanish), it is really only Yiddish or Hebrew that has a single word for this unique relationship.

Somehow I feel that Yiddish and my Jewish soul are teaching me about my deep connection to my son’s father-in-law, which perhaps is better understood through an explanation of the source of the word mechuten. Literally, the word means “from the bridegroom” or perhaps “from the wedding.” My heart tells me the word is sending a powerful message: I am more than simply related to my mechuten through my son and his marriage. When this mechuten passed away, I lost a beloved member of my family. We connected on so many levels. I turned to him for medical advice; he was a renowned surgeon, but it was really an experience to watch him carve my turkey. I actually borrowed his warm winter coat when I traveled to Moscow on a business trip; we shared so many Sabbath and celebratory meals; we savored our shared love of our grandchildren; he always knew when I needed a caring arm around my shoulders and a kind word, and he loved my son as though he were his own flesh and blood. We came from two different places but were two people who, like our children, entered into a lifelong relationship on the day our children were married that was treasured and defined through one beautiful, touching Yiddish/Hebrew word: he was my mechuten.

Little Tzivia Rosen, as she was then, with her Boubie, Dora Eisenberg.

I remember my excitement the day I went with friends to see the Yiddish version of “Fiddler on the Roof” when it played on Broadway last year. Imagine what Sholem Aleichem, the famous Yiddish author and playwright, might have said while watching the musical based on his “Tevya the Dairyman” stories being successfully acted on an American stage, but in the original language of the author’s works. It really was amazing to watch. And how well did I understand the Yiddish? Suffice to say that I was deeply thankful for the English translations (and Russian as well) posted on either side of the stage!

And that brings me back to my determination to look for that Yiddish class, perhaps an online course through the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. I know so many individual words and expressions, but how deeply satisfying it would be to speak full sentences, to be able actually to have a conversation.

Years ago, there was a little Jewish man from Russia who came to my door every year asking for charity. How did we communicate? He spoke a decent Yiddish and I mustered all my power to retrieve the Yiddish words I knew in order to speak to him, even a little. To be honest, I was fairly pathetic. I am far more on my game when I can throw out a Yiddish word here or there, or, for example, when I refer to one of my younger granddaughters as my ketzilah. When she first asked the meaning of the word, I told her it means a little kitten. But it really means much more. Ketzilah somehow expresses how much I love her and how she sits inside my heart, while calling her my kitten only tells her she’s a little sweet thing who will grow up to become a cat. My granddaughter, with God’s help, definitely will grow up to be an amazing young woman, but she will always be my ketzilah. Like so many Yiddish words and expressions, the richness of this word cannot be found in its English equivalent. The 19th century French historian Jules Michelet explained it perfectly: “The most intimate temper of a people, its deepest soul, is above all in its language.”

Tzivia Bieler and her late husband, Bruno, moved to Teaneck in January 1974. She retired two years ago as the executive office director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Retirement brings her pleasure, and more time to spend with children and grandchildren in the United States and Israel.