Yiddish was my Grandma Clara’s native language. She spoke English (with a cute little accent) when we kids came over, but the newspaper she read was printed in odd, sylvan characters that were as incomprehensible as hieroglyphics to me. There was never any thought that I or my siblings would learn the language, and I guess we always felt a sad sense that Grandma and Aunt Rose spoke a private language that the rest of the world barely knew existed, a language that was fast disappearing.
Well, not with Jews like Michael Chabon around it’s not. I’m fascinated by the fact that this quirky writer has somehow made Yiddish buzzworthy in 2007 with his acclaimed new novel The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. I’m drawn to this book, even though I have mixed feelings about Chabon’s execution of the concept. Maybe that’s just because I can’t help having high expectations for a book like this.
Sarah Weinman has high expectations too, since she happens to be a native Yiddish speaker. This gives her a unique perspective on Chabon’s outsider’s vision of the Yiddish-speaker’s world. Many Yiddish speakers bristle at Chabon’s condescending use of the language as comic metaphor, Weinman points out. She’s also not satisfied by the novelist’s felicity with the language:
“… even though I enjoyed the book, I couldn’t quite shake the inborn expectations I had in hoping somehow that there would be a more living, breathing personification of a Yiddish-speaking homeland instead of the more ersatz, mainstream-friendly result that is winning Chabon a lot of praise from my critical peers.”
My own gripe with the book? I can’t go for that movie-set noir pastiche. You’ve got to be Paul Auster to pull this mystery mood off, and Michael Chabon strikes me as more of a bush-league Jonathan Lethem in the genre territory.
And yet the book’s concept fascinates me, and I keep browsing the pages, tempted to dive back in. Perhaps I will. I’ve always known about the power of modern-era Yiddish writers, from the gentle evergreen humorist Leo Rosten to the awe-inspiring Isaac Bashevis Singer, who I had the honor of taking a class with at Albany State. I love his stories, but my all-time favorite piece of Yiddish-oriented literature is a work of fiction written in English: Envy, or Yiddish In America by the formidable Cynthia Ozick.
In this acidic story, Ozick the bespectacled battle-axe out-Bellows Saul Bellow with a bitter but hilarious portrait of a raging Yiddish writer and translator apoplectic with fury at the fact that another Yiddish-writing associate of his (said to be based on Isaac Bashevis Singer himself) has just become a smashing literary success. It’s not clear which infuriates the story’s hero more, the fact that Yiddish is dying or the fact that a different Yiddish writer has just hit the jackpot.
It’s true that I. B. Singer was a superstar in Yiddish circles. When I came back from college and told my Grandma Clara and Aunt Rose about my class with the unforgettable Nobel laureate they were both impressed, and Aunt Rose told me that Singer’s assumed middle name is an inside joke, because “Bashevis” means “Mamma’s boy” (I never knew if she was making this up or not, but now I see that, according to Wikipedia, Aunt Rose knew her stuff).
Grandma Clara’s younger son turned out to be my father (oh, you haven’t heard that story?), who never took an interest in Yiddish as far as I know, but he has a friend from Brooklyn College named Al Grand who has made a name for himself translating Gilbert and Sullivan plays into Yiddish (his recent version of Pirates of Penzance is a hit).
It happens that Sarah Weinman wrote about Al Grand’s comments on a previous Michael Chabon/Yiddish controversy in her blog post above, which just goes to prove how small this yiddische world is. Inspired by Sarah’s article, I couldn’t resist the chance to ask Al Grand some of my own questions, and to enjoy hearing about this language — the language of my own heritage, though I know nothing about it — from someone with a lot of knowledge to share.
Yiddish seems to be in the air these days. Why do you think that is?
There are so many organizations, writers, entertainers, etc. who are passionate about keeping Yiddish alive and who are working assiduously towards that endeavor that it would take a large book to answer this questions adequately. But I could do worse than to begin with The National Yiddish Book Center a vibrant, non-profit organization working to rescue Yiddish books and celebrate the culture they contain. Supported by 30,000 members, they are now the largest and fastest-growing Jewish cultural organization in America. Then there’s Mendele – a moderated mailing list dedicated to the lively exchange of views, information, news and just about anything else related to the Yiddish language and Yiddish literature. Mendele has world wide subscribers who explore every conceivable topic related to Yiddish. Yiddish courses are taught in colleges throughout the world. A four-week Summer Program in Yiddish was begun in Oxford, England in 1982 and transferred to Vilnius in 1998. Since then, Vilnius University has been home to this highly praised university-accredited course in Yiddish language and culture. In 2001, the course became an integral component of the new Vilnius Yiddish Institute at Vilnius University. Yearly, it has drawn participants from as many as nineteen countries across the globe. A large number are university students; overall, however, the most varied backgrounds, pursuits, and professions are represented. As I said — I can go on for the length of a book but I’ll stop here.
Do you consider yourself an expert in the language?
The majority of Jews in the USA and approximately half of the 3 million Jews in Israel plus a substantial number of French, British, Russian, Argentinian Jews are Ashkenazi Jews of central or eastern European origin who share a religious subculture with Yiddish as its lingua franca. I am not a Yiddish expert in the sense of being academically trained. Also — Yiddish is not my native tongue — so in that regard I am also not an expert. However — I grew up in a household wherein both of my parents, whose native tongue was Yiddish, spoke it constantly. I absorbed it very naturally. I am basically self-taught through the use of Weinreich’s Yiddish/English — English/Yiddish wonderful dictionary as well as his College Yiddish. I also own and consult Mordkhe Shchaechter’s Yiddish Tsvey, Dovid Katz’s Grammar of the Yiddish Language and numerous collections of Yiddish poetry, novels, proverbs, music, etc.
Have you read Chabon’s book and do you have any opinions on it?
I have not read Chabon’s book — but I understand that he has a limited background in the Yiddish language.
I’ve always heard that Yiddish is a mash-up of Hebrew and German, but when I see it it seems more German than Hebrew to me. Am I missing something?
Although most of Yiddish vocabulary is from ancient German — still about a fourth or so of the vocabulary is from Hebrew. Take the three words in the title of my piece DI YAM GAZLONIM. The only Germanic element therein is “Di”. The word “YAM” means “ocean” both in Hebrew and in Yiddish. And “GAZLONIM” is the plural of “GAZLEN” which means “robber” both in Hebrew and in Yiddish. Thus “DI YAM GAZLONIM” means, word for word “the sea robbers” or in more graceful English “the robbers of the sea”. Historically Yiddish
stems from medieval German so it retains many of the medieval elements of the German language that no longer exist in modern German. Thus German linguists who specialize in old German studies are interested in doing scholarly studies of Yiddish.
Where do you think Yiddish studies will be 100 years from now?
My hope is that it should continue to live. But prophecy is not one of my strengths.
Can you quote a couple of favorite verses from your Yiddish “Penzance” for us to enjoy? Naturally “Major General” comes to mind but I’d leave it to you to select verses you like.
(breaking into song)
“Ikh bin der Groyser General un ikh bin oykh a guter Yid”
Ikh gey oysrekhnen yetst mayne ale mayles in a Yiddish lid,
Ikh hob a klugn kop un ikh farshtey Einstein’s teoriye,
Ikh ken dertseyln ales fun der gantse velt historiye,
Kh’bin zeyer gut bakant mit ale mayses fun de Maupassant,
Ikh tants, un zing, un makh a shpas – ikh bin a mentsh mit groys talant,
Ikh ken gut bakn lekekh un ikh veys fun fotografia-
Ikh ken gut shisn un ikh hob nit moyre far der Mafia!
Ikh lern gut Gemorah un mit Toyre bin ikh gut bakant,
Un alemol bay tog un nakht halt ikh dem sider in der hant
In kurtzn vil ikh zogn aykh ven ikh farendik shoyn mayn lid,
Ikh bin a Groyser General un ikh bin oykh a guter Yid!
Ikh bin a talmid khokhim un an opera zinger bin ikh oykh,
Der “Barber fun Seville” ken ikh gut zingen mit mayn shtime hoykh,
A khale ken ikh bakn un a lokshn kugl makh ikh fayn,
Ikh makh a kiddish erev Shabos un gey glaykh in shul arayn.
In shul ken ikh gut davenen un leynen toyre ken ikh oykh,
Un chiken zup mit kneydlakh es ikh biz es tut mir vey der boykh,
Ikh kokh a Purim tsimes un makh latkes yedn Khanike “anike”,”lanike”,”panike”, A-HA!
Kh’ken tantsn gut a “hora” un ikh shpil af der “harmonica”
How would one say “Literary Kicks” in Yiddish?
“Literarishe Klep”. Note that every “a” is pronounced “ah”.
Literarishe Klep says thanks to Al Grand for an interesting interview and a great Yiddish “Major General”.