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The Soul of Yiddish

I grew up hearing quite a lot of Yiddish and understanding not much of it at all. And that was a good thing in that my parents used it when they didn't want me to understand. Of course by the time I was around to not understand their Yiddish, it was liberally interspersed with English so that to me, one of their exchanges might sound like: Blah blah four thirty blah blah telephone. Blah blah Corydon Avenue.

They had emigrated to Canada in their early years from the Pale of Settlement, the strip of land between Poland and Russia to which the Jews had been relegated and where Yiddish was the commonly spoken language, their first language in fact. My mother arrived knowing Russian which she quickly forgot, but Yiddish continued to be the language she spoke at home. In fact, her mother, my grandmother never did learn English. And yet, inevitably this Yiddish they spoke at home began to accommodate the English spoken outside of the home.

But that was, of course, completely normal for Yiddish which was a language that evolved a thousand years ago as an amalgam of German and Hebrew (primarily Medieval German written in Hebrew characters) and which added to itself words from the languages that Jewish people spoke as they spread out in the world. This hybrid retained the religious associations contained within its Hebrew element while incorporating many elements of the secular.

I did understand a few Yiddish words – probably the ones you know too. A mensch wasn't just a man but a man you could trust with your life. A yenta wasn't just a gossip; she knew and had an opinion about all your business.

Tracey R Rich in her website, Judaism 101,

comments that Yiddish expresses 'subtle distinctions of human character that other cultures barely recognise let alone put into words. What other language distinguishes between a shlemiel (a person who suffers due to his own poor choices or actions), a shlimazl (a persoh who suffers through no fault of his own) and a nebech (a person who suffers because he makes other people's problems his own)? An old joke explains the distinction: a shlemiel spills his soup, it falls on the shlimazl and the nebech cleans it up!'

I have heard Yiddish described as a poetic language, a language with soul, a musical language. Although I never came to understand or speak it, it must have got right into my bones because the first time I heard the Yiddish song Der Filosof:

I was transfixed.

The English translation comes out like this:

Come here you philosopher

With your cat's brain,

Come to the rebe's table

And learn som wisdom

Yaih bai bai bai...

You thought up a steam ship

And with that you praise yourself

The rebe spreads his kerchief

And walks over the sea

Yaih bai bai bai...

You invented a hot air balloon

And think you're a genius

The rebe, scoffs, the rebe laughs,

He has no need for it

Yaih bai bai bai...

Do you know what the rebe does

When he is sitting alone?

In one minute he flies up to heaven

And takes there his Sabbath meal

Yaih bai bai bai...

One cannot but picture the shtetl, so beautifully evoked in the paintings of Marc Chagall, the old world village where blue cows play the cello and lovers fly. Perhaps it is this lost world that permeates the language and gives it its poetry.The shtetl is an intense human hive, a small close-knit community where everyone knows everyone else's business and births, deaths, love and pain, set against the uncontrollable vagaries of nature are the stuff of daily life. This sense of the nuance and the kaleidoscopic nature of the human soul is also part of the language.

In 1948, Dimitri Shostakovich, a composer who was not a Jew but who identified strongly with the Jewish plight and who was, himself, at that point living in fear for his life for his transgressions against Stalin's regime, wrote a set of songs based on Yiddish folk poetry translated into Russian.

'Lament For a Dead Child' is one of these songs set for soprano and mezzo-soprano, a song which rips your heart apart:

Sun and rain

Light and darkness.

The fog went down,

The moon is dark.

Whom she gave birth to?

To a boy, to a boy.

How he was called?

Moyshele, Moyshele.

In what did they rock Moyshele?

In the cradle.

What they gave him to eat?

Bread and onions.

Where did they bury him?

In the grave.

Oy! The boy is in the grave,

In the grave!

Moyshele is in the grave, Oy!

Perhaps it is this intimacy with the sorrows of life that lend to the Yiddish language, the Yiddish sense of humour and the Yiddish soul a sort of ironic self-effacement . My mother was very fond of a joke about a poor Yiddish man who spoke no English and who had been wrongfully accused of stealing a chicken. He was provided with a translator and taken before the judge who said to the translator:

'Ask this man why he stole a chicken'. The translator asked the man in Yiddish why he stole a chicken and the man replied in Yiddish with a phrase that translates thus:

'I stole a chicken'.

With characteristic Yiddish intonation and the sort of baffled yet knowing attitude of a man who has seen everything, he conveyed in that emphasis of the word 'I' and the upending of his voice on the first syllable of chicken that he couldn't possibly have stolen a chicken. Why would he? The notion was absurd.

The translator who was unfortunately lacking in any perspicacity turned to the Judge and told him in English what the man had said:

'He says he stole a chicken'.

The joke continues to the end of the interrogation with many further misunderstandings all based on the translator's inability to convey the intonation in the accused's voice. And in that incredulous, slightly nasal upending of the voice lies the soul of Yiddish.

Resignation? Black humour?

Listen to the amazing Barbara Gasienica-Gewont sing the Yiddish song 'Bulbes'. She says it all!

Bulbes! (Potatoes!)

Sunday potatoes

Monday potatoes

Tuesday and Wednesday potatoes

Thursday and Friday potatoes

But on Shabbes something special

A potato kugel!

And Sunday -- and so on -- potatoes

Bread with potatoes

Meat with potatoes

Noon meal and evening meal potatoes

Here and there potatoes

But now and then, a novelty

A potato kugel!

And Sunday, the usual -- potatoes

Here potatoes

There potatoes

Here and there potatoes

There and here potatoes

But on Shabbes after the chulent

A potato kugel!

A Sunday, here we go again, potatoes


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