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A Little Bit of the Old Country Brought Home
I'm still self-conscious standing up here by the blackboard. What are my credentials for running a Yiddish class? I may have a decent accent, but what about my grammar? My vocabulary beyond a third-grade reading level?
When officials from the local Jewish community center approached me, they made it clear that I was their only option. They probably guessed I couldn't say no to the burgeoning group of students who were eager to read and speak the Ashkenazi mother tongue.
Yiddish and I go way back. When I was 6, a little friend from the neighborhood dragged me with her to the Workmen's Circle shul/school housed in the basement of our Bronx apartment building. Classes met three days a week after school for an hour.
Chana, our instructor from Poland, was the strictest adult I'd ever encountered. In an effort to please her, I stayed on for the next four years, training myself to read from right to left, and to imagine myself in a world where girls wore long braids and led a simpler, more pious existence.
Chana convinced me to go on to mitlshule, akin to Yiddish high school. That met downtown on Sundays, and my parents were always trying to get me to quit because it ruined their weekends.
But by then I had come to love the Old World, East European teachers who tried so hard to pass on their lost culture to us. Their classes were more cogent, more vivid than what we had in public school. I was mesmerized by the maps we used to trace the long, treacherous journey of Jews to find a welcome in the world.
I sang with gusto the happier songs, as well as the ones that lamented poverty, pogroms and the Shoah. My appreciation of poetry began in Yiddish, not in English. But when I turned 14, I graduated from mitlshule, thus ending my formal Yiddish education.
Four decades later, here I am, standing before this class, textbook in hand. I am hard pressed to remember what an indirect object and a predicate are in English, never mind in Yiddish. But it is our sixth class, and we are making some headway with simple vocabulary and grammar.
Ikh heys Berl. Der tate heyst Khayim/"My name is Berel. My father's name is Chaim."
Di bobe voynt af der ershter gas./"Grandmother lives on First Street."
Later, I read them a poem about the old shnyder ("tailor"), Dodl, who is determined to make a dress for his daughter. As I read, I think, "When was the last time anyone in this class bought their clothes from a Jewish tailor?"
Lynn, a retired comparative-literature professor, raises her hand. She is still thinking about a Chanukah story we recently read in which a young boy, Yosele, follows a spinning dreidel to a small, broken-down hut and takes the poor little boy who lives there home with him, so he won't be without latkes for the holiday.
Lynn is puzzled by how kind Yosele's family is to the boy. "My parents never wanted me to associate with the poorer kids in our neighborhood," she says.
I explain that Yosele's family was also poor; almost everyone in the shtetl was poor. But not only were they delighted to help out someone more unfortunate than they, there was no question that the other boy, though more bereft materially, had similar values and a love of Torah.
Lynn nods her head slowly.
Sometimes, when I really get going, I hear my voice resound with an identical intonation as my teacher Chana, almost as if I were channeling her.
Actually, I can imagine all my teachers inside of me, watching how I transfer that small Yiddish spark to those who didn't have the benefit of a New York childhood, or a relative or neighbor who once knew of this language and its related culture.
I may be an amateur teacher, but with great devotion I pass on what little I know.
Mara Sokolsky is a freelance writer living in Providence, R.I. E-mail her with any comments at: [email protected].