Ach bin a shvester’… is that sister?” calls out one student. (It is.)
“‘Zay nisht kine nudnik’… is ‘zay’ they?” asks another. (Yes, “zay” is they and a “nudnik” is a pest who bothers you ad nauseum about almost anything).
“What’s the difference between a ‘macher’ and a ‘schnorrer’?” (A “macher” is a big shot, someone who makes things happen, a “schnorrer” is someone who stays at your home to save on a hotel, but isn’t enough of a “mensch” to bring a little something for the host.)
These are some “fragges” (questions) you’ll hear if you drop in on Introduction to Yiddish, class being offered some Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings at Adath Shalom in Morris Plains. But be on time, or you might not get a seat; the class consistently numbers at least 15 “studenten.”
Yiddish is the traditional language of Ashkenazi or Eastern European Jews. It was the “mama loshen” of millions of Jewish-Americans’ parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and beyond. And at Adath Shalom and at other synagogues, communities, and cultural institutions around the country, the language is making a comeback.
At its peak, Yiddish was spoken by 11-13 million people, or 75-80 percent of the entire Jewish population globally, according to the introduction of “Colloquial Yiddish: The Complete Course for Beginners” (Routledge). The effects of the Holocaust, worldwide immigration, and the censorship of religion in the former Soviet Union contributed to smaller and smaller numbers of native speakers. It’s now considered an endangered language, but some, like the students at Adath Shalom, are doing their part to preserve it.
The class, which takes place February and March, is taught by synagogue member and Yiddish speaker Ellen Muraskin of Morris Plains. Held in the synagogue library, the students gather around a big “tish” (table), but if you’re “shpet” (late) like I was, you’ll find yourself sitting in the back, thanks to an unexpectedly “gezunt” turnout of eager learners in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, plus the shul’s — there’s another one — rabbi, Moshe Rudin.
“The rabbi approached me and said that people wanted to learn Yiddish. He didn’t have to ask me twice, but I have a lot of chutzpah to accept the position,” Muraskin told NJJN. “I’m a language person, but only studied one year in college as a Hebrew studies major, so I’m no Rifka Levine.” That’s Muraskin giving “kuvud” to Levine, a now-retired Yiddish-teaching legend who taught for years at JCC MetroWest and at the Alex Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany.
Inspired by childhood memories of Yiddish being spoken by parents and grandparents, many of Muraskin’s students want to understand what was going on around them when they were little. While most struggle with the grammar, the favorite phrases of their “bubbes, zaydes, and tantes” still roll off their tongues.
“Some phrases can’t be translated in one or two English words,” said Cookie Samuels of Rockaway. “One word can be a whole, long ‘geschichte’ [story]. I’m here to try and finally translate some of the things my bubbe used to say to me. The rich Yiddish expressions and insults always make me laugh.”
Regional dialects, and there are four — Western, Lithuanian, Polish, and Ukrainian — also come into play. For example, folks in what is now Lithuania, Belarus, Latvia, and parts of northeastern Poland, northern and eastern Ukraine, and western Russia spoke “Litvish,” while people speaking the dialect of Poland, Galicia, and much of Hungary spoke “Poylish” and “Galitsyaner.”
“I love languages,” added student Cindy Eskow. “I’m taking Hebrew with the rabbi, but I always wanted to learn Yiddish. Hearing it and speaking it gives me a warm feeling and reconnects me with my grandparents. I can just hear my grandma Yetta saying, ‘Ver vaste?’ [Who knew?].”
Besides reporting on the Yiddish class, I’m also a student. In the first lesson, Muraskin, our “lehrerke” (teacher), said that if we had a “bruder, shvester, tochter, tate, mama” who might be interested in Yiddish, “loz mich visn” (bring them along).
In an effort to populate the class with at least one native speaker, I invited Naomi Zaslow, Lester Senior Housing Community’s Yiddish teacher and my 90-year-old mama, to join me.
My mom is fluent in Yiddish, but can’t read or write it. Yiddish was her parents’ first language and they spoke it at home. My grandfather read The Forverts (Jewish Daily Forward) cover to cover, but my mother didn’t have formal Jewish studies as he did in Poland. She would stand outside the synagogue, knowing she belonged, but resigned to watching people come and go. Life would eventually bring her inside.
For me, Yiddish swirls around in my head. With Hebrew as a good soup base for most of the letters, I want to learn the language for real and “kibitz” with my mom while we still can. As a child, all four of my grandparents spoke Yiddish, and my mother would use the language to speak to my father when she didn’t want us to understand. It was only partially effective, as my father tended to answer in English. Secrets revealed.
As a World War II American soldier in Europe, my dad’s knowledge of Yiddish was a lifesaver for 13 captured, underage German soldiers — children really, all 14-16 years old — who were recruited at war’s end. He begged his captain for the opportunity to speak to them in a combination of German and Yiddish, and it helped save their young lives.
“I remember a time when you had to speak Yiddish, because so many people didn’t even speak English,” said my mom. “My favorite [expression] is ‘farshlepteh krenk,’ which is a long, drawn-out illness. You use it when say, someone is boring you with a long story. ‘Chaya went on and on with her story. It was like a farshlepteh krenk.’”
The genesis of Yiddish can be traced to approximately the 10th century when Jews from France and Northern Italy began migrating to the German-speaking areas of Central Europe and established large communities. They added Hebrew and Aramaic, some Slavic and Romance words, and Yiddish was born.
“Many words that people think are pure Yiddish are actually Hebrew,” said Muraskin. “Words like ‘tzurus’ [trouble], ‘mishpocha’ [family], and ‘meise’ [story — think ‘bubbe meise,’ a grandmother’s tale], that’s Hebrew.”
Well-loved as it is, misconceptions about Yiddish abound. Many think it’s a structureless, grammarless, lowbrow German, and not suitable for high culture, but that too is a “bubbe meise.” In fact, Yiddish is at the heart of the renaissance of one of the more recent cultural phenoms to hit the tri-state area: After an extended sold-out run at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the all-Yiddish production of “Fiddler on the Roof” from the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene moved Off-Broadway to Stage 42. Performances began last month and will run to the end of the year.
While saving Yiddish looms large as a historical backdrop, back in the Adath Shalom library, Muraskin promises evenings and afternoons of “shpas” or fun, “especially working whatever little ‘schticklech’ of Yiddish we already know into our fledgling conversations.”
At one point Muraskin referred to a phrase a student used as “ghetto Yiddish,” and another piped up, “It’s more like ‘shtetl’ Yiddish!”
When students do well in conversation, Lehreke Muraskin says “zayr gudt.” When grammatical mistakes multiply, Muraskin tells us “zor zug nisht” (don’t worry), a reassuring phrase. After an hour and a half quickly passes, we don’t say goodbye, but wish each other “zei gezunt” (good health) to “biz hundert un tsvantsig” (“May you live until 120” — the years of Moses’ life).
Those are beautiful words in any language.