Yiddish, Polish, English, and my father

Yiddish, Polish, English, and my father

A grown-up rabbi’s kid looks back at language and life

Esther Kook’s father beams at his little girl.
Esther Kook’s father beams at his little girl.

I’m starting to sound like my father, and it’s surreal. When Yiddish phrases tumble out of my mouth, I wonder, who said that? Is that Dad talking?

Yiddish and Polish were Dad’s native languages; when he was a child, he sailed with his family to America from Poland. Over the next several years, through school and eventually Yeshiva University’s rabbinical smicha program, Dad worked diligently to sound and act like an American, not a “greener.”

Through sheer determination, Dad honed eloquent oratorical skills and a rich English vocabulary that he demonstrated as a principal of various yeshivot, and later as a pulpit rabbi. Every Shabbat he’d speak from the bimah with barely a hint of an accent and in a style reminiscent of the Reverend Billy Graham, whom he called the “best speaker.” I’d often catch him studying Reverend Graham on television.

But when he was off duty and in the comfort of home, Yiddish and Polish crept back into Dad’s conversation. As he loosened his tie, he also loosened his speech, which he peppered with Yiddish phrases. Then, when he became frustrated or even angry, he’d resort to the more guttural Polish, which I loved to imitate.

Yiddish was the language for secrets, for information he considered unsuitable for a kid’s tender ears, and that piqued my interest even more. Dad switched to English whenever I walked into the room. Little did he know that I tried to absorb as much Yiddish as I could without being explicitly taught this mysterious language.

It was frustrating, and I tried to get some explanation of what he’d been saying — to no avail.

“Daddy, what do those words mean?” I’d ask.

“You can’t translate it,” he’d answer, and switch back into his straightlaced English.

Hebrew was the only other language Dad encouraged me to learn. I was sent to Massad Aleph, a strictly Hebrew-speaking camp, when I was only 7 years old. I was terribly homesick throughout the summer, but I loved the Hebrew songs and music that permeated the camp, all the time.

When I came home, Dad and I often sang the Hebrew songs together in harmony. But Yiddish remained the language of mystery. Over the years, I picked up phrases. “Menchen” were wonderful people, and a “kochlefel” literally translates into a spoon used to mix food, and figuratively describes a person who enjoys stirring it up, getting into people’s personal business. Professionally, Dad dealt with “kochlefels” gingerly because you never knew with whom they’d mix it up, and how the message would be relayed or changed.

Then there were the shul “machers,” the big shots, the people who made things happen, whom Dad placated and tried to please. I sensed who those machers were, heard their names emanating in conversations from the kitchen. I knew that they could be a tough bunch.

As a rabbi’s child, you learn a lot about shul business through osmosis. Being a naturally quiet child, I was a listener, and soaked in this fascinating world.

Then there were the calls at all hours of the day and night, on our rotary phone, many of which I’d answer.

“Hello, is this Esther?” they’d ask. “Is the rabbi home? May I speak with him?”

To those on the outside he was Rabbi Max Posnansky, but to me he was just Daddy, and he had a quirky sense of humor. When the friendly local funeral director called, he’d make small talk with me because his daughter was my age, and she went to my school. After a few minutes of chitchat, I’d hand Dad the phone and whisper, “It’s Lou, and you’re going to be busy later.”

One time, I got wind that a certain macher was giving Dad “tsuris” — a hard time. He was “fahbissina” — bitter/not pleased — which I gleaned through some covert conversations. Dad’s distress made me a bit fahbissina, too, because I saw how he rarely took vacations and worked at all hours, going to meetings and answering calls.

So one Shabbat at kiddush, when I saw Mr. Macher drinking his schnapps and eating “kichel” — sugary pastry — without thinking twice, I approached him.

“Why are you being mean to my father?” I asked.

Mr. Macher went pale and nearly choked on his kichel. He didn’t know what to say, stared blankly at me, and then gave me that look that translated into “you’re in big trouble.” Sure enough, he reported the incident to Dad. Interestingly, Dad didn’t seem too upset with me. Looking back, I think he understood that in my own childlike way, I was trying to protect him.

Generally, Dad trusted my judgment, and when he spoke about me — again I wasn’t supposed to hear — he characterized me as someone with “seychel,” good common sense. I realized that I had crossed the line with Mr. Macher, and it never happened again. Also, Dad became more careful about discussing shul business while I was around.

Many years later, when Dad got sick, his European accent became more pronounced. Even my sister noted, “I didn’t realize Dad had an accent.” It seemed that along with his illness, he was losing the control he once had over his language, and his yearning to sound American.

Looking back, I wish Dad had taught me Yiddish, and shared that world with me. It’s such a rich and descriptive language. He also didn’t share how his early childhood in Poland affected him. I know that it had a profound effect because he never desired to return to what he called “that place.”

When I’d ask him if he wanted to return to see his childhood home, he’d become agitated and say, “You can’t pay me to go back.” I’m assuming he experienced significant antisemitism in Poland, and that it left a deep scar. I’ll never really know for sure.

I’ve grown to appreciate those wonderful Yiddish phrases that were scattered around me, and lately they pop out when I least expect it. It’s almost like Dad is speaking from yesterday’s kitchen. It’s a bit freaky, but also comforting, as if he never completely left this world.

Dad was right. It’s hard to translate these sayings, and they don’t do this rich language justice. Those phrases continue to speak volumes. Dad, I miss you on your almost yahrzeit!

Esther Kook of Teaneck is a reading specialist, freelance writer, and proud grown-up rabbi’s kid.

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