Yiddish as a First Language

Rather than doling out information in little bits and pieces without a real pattern, I am putting this blog into a holding pattern for now. When I come back, I’ll have some good information and lots of posts!

I’ll leave you with a photo of Murray with his first child, his son, the gardener (my husband).

One generation before this photo, when Murray himself was a young child, he spoke the language of his household, Yiddish. When he started school in New York at age five, he did not speak English. The method in those days was complete immersion with no outside help. Let me tell you, he learned English really fast.

By the time I met him when the gardener and I were in high school in Michigan, he spoke (to my Midwestern ear) English with a strong New York accent.

P.S. Yes, I know the photo has the wrong watermark, but at least it’s one of my watermarks!

25 thoughts on “Yiddish as a First Language

  1. I look forward to the return of the blog. It’s sad how Yiddish has disappeared. My grandmother and grandfather were, of course, fluent. My aunt was pretty fluent also, but my mother, who was born 13 years after her sister, does not speak it but could understand a fair amount when she was young. I only know the words that have become part of the vocabulary of many Americans, Jewish or not—schlep, kibbitz, schmuck, schmoe, yenta, tush, and so on. I try to sprinkle words into my speech when I talk to my grandsons (not the insults or bad words), so that maybe a few of those words will survive. Does the gardener know any Yiddish?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, many people use those words. Also, kvell. The gardener only learned a few phrases–the memorable ones of course ;). One of them sticks in my head as the rhythm sounds poetic. I don’t know how to spell it but it means something like this: you stick to my *** like a wet rag. Sorry for that image. You did ask.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Hmm, you will have to spell that one phonetically! Yiddish is such a colorful language—more insults than anyone needs. My aunt used to lovingly call me a meeskite—meaning an ugly face. Or a shayne punim—a pretty face. Depending on whether she wanted to be sarcastic or sincere!

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      • LOL. Your aunt! Yes, I’ve heard those a lot. Kish mir in tuchis is another well-used one (one of the gardener’s favorites). I used to love Murray’s expressions in English, too, even when they didn’t make any sense. Maybe they all stemmed from Yiddish and made sense that way. One of the classics was “You’ll find fair and **** on the same page in the dictionary.”

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      • 🙂 I read an article yesterday that Henry Roth’s prose in Call It Sleep is essentially an English translation of how things would be said in Yiddish. I need to go back and re-read it. This came up because a passage from the book was used on German high school exams to test for proficiency in English. I told my German friend that most American high school students would have struggled with some of the vocabulary.

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  2. I’m looking forward to hearing all the info you’ve found. I also enjoyed reading the exchange between you and Amy. 🙂 My mother’s parents and relatives spoke Yiddish, and my parents understood it well when they were growing up. My mom more than my dad, I think. They used to sometimes speak Yiddish when they didn’t want us to understand–and isn’t that sad that none of does speak Yiddish? But I guess it’s a family thing because my mom said when her parents didn’t know want her to know what they were talking about, they spoke Russian, but she learned the Russian word for ice cream. Hahaha. She said when her younger brother first went to school, he didn’t speak English.

    When my mom still traveled, she said she could speak Yiddish to people she met who didn’t speak English. I think I told you that her cousin who lives in the same building started a Yiddish Club, and she said the people who come to it often remember the songs their parents or grandparents sang.

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    • Yes, you did tell me. That is so wonderful to think of the heritage being saved and hopefully passed on in this way. Yes, Murray’s parents knew a lot of languages, especially Isidore. He knew about five languages, but Yiddish was the language at home in the household, even in this country.

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  3. I love that photo Luanne – isn’t that the epitome of a proud papa and a happy baby! And it is so interesting reading the comments too! Here the Jewish community is so absorbed into the kiwi culture I doubt much of their language has survived at all. I haven’t known any who are bi-lingual anyway. And only one, my cousin, who was interested in her Jewish roots and who eventually converted to Judaism. I suppose the total immersion thing goes someway to changing the relationship with a language and maybe even the culture. I once had a little nine year old Spanish boy come into my class with zero English beyond ‘good morning’ and I remember watching him in the playground the first couple of days, a little overwhelmed by it all, just standing still watching, observing, listening to all the English speakers whirling around him. Day four and he was in there too and already beginning to vocalise the words he understood. It was so quick – by the end of the first term he could understand and be understood and within the year was completely fluent. His family returned to Spain when he was in his mid teens and at age 18 he returned here to finish his education and never left again, this is he told me with a grin, my home. Complete immersion!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think language is quite tied to culture. When the language is lost, the other rituals start to get lost one by one. That might be one reason why Hebrew is important to Judaism (even outside of Israel) because it helps provide the continuity. I suppose Latin did that for Catholics at one time. Speaking of Hebrew, Israel uses an immersion process, I believe, for people moving there. The way it’s been explained to me is that it’s quite effective. In America, our philosophy is quite different from that, but has more to do with culture, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. That’s such a cute picture of your husband! His dad looks proud and happy.

    My grandmother spoke Yiddish plus bits and pieces of several other languages. That’s the way it was in her part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Gramma learned English too, as would her six children. As far as I know, none of them spoke Yiddish. Grampa, that mystery man…I think his first language was German and his second was English.

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    • Murray’s parents also knew several languages. We know Isidore knew at least five. I guess it was necessary for them to know so many languages, for various reasons. Thanks re the pic: I think he looks cute, too, and Murray looks handsome as usual.

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  5. Lovey photo Luanne. I really like how this post has sparked such a wonderful discussion about language. I arrived in NZ as a 5 year old with a broad Fifeshire accent that totally confused my Kiwi classmates. It didn’t take long to change the way I pronounced words and structured sentences in the playground, but I remember for a few years I had one accent at home and one for school and friends. Even now if I spend much time in Scotland I “revert” to my original speech patterns — much to the amusement of the (very Kiwi) Big T!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Initially that sounds crazy-making to speak in different accents all in one day, but in some ways it’s no different than speaking two different languages, right? By the way, not sure I’ve told you this, but I have been to Scotland and loved it. I have not been to NZ, but WOULD love to!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I know, it does sound crazy. I realised though that it’s actually about thought processes. I thought differently around friends and verbalised those thoughts in the appropriate accent. I kepnew I’d become a kiwi when I found myself thinking (i.e. talking to myself) in a Kiwi accent.
        And btw: when you do make it to NZ; I’m a very welcoming host 😀

        Liked by 1 person

      • I told my husband that Su is a good host! Thank you so much! He said, “You do know the flight is something like a day and a half, right?” hahaha
        I’m holding out hope I get there.
        Thought processes makes sense to me. It sounds like an accent is actually the same thing as a language in how it works in our brains.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. That is a wonderful father-son picture!
    It does get harder to learn languages as you get older, sadly. And easier to forget, too.
    Even if you don’t understand what is being said, something comes through in the sounds, and the differences are fascinating to hear.
    I do wonder why so many “insulting” Yiddish phrases seem to pass into common usage with English-speakers.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree about the sounds! My favorite song is in Japanese, which I do not understand, and yet when it’s sung in English it’s not nearly as emotional as when it’s sung in Japanese! Thank you re the picture. I think so, too. Murray’s so proud of his baby!
      There are probably a lot of reasons for the Yiddish insults, but one that comes to mind right away is that because the sound of it (the type of sounds you make in Yiddish) it is conducive to insults.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Maybe time to ‘come out’? Okay… my grandmother spoke Yiddish, almost entirely. Her grasp of English was very bad, so when I was a kid I’m not sure really how we communicated – but we did. I only know a few words and phrases. But most of the elders – well, all of them, I think – knew and spoke Yiddish. One day I need to find someone who can translate cursive Yiddish and get a very old letter I have, translated. I think it’s from the 1920s, probably.

    I love the photo, it’s so sweet! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, I love this story, Val! And to think you have that letter! I wonder if there is somebody on a Facebook group who can translate it. There is one group that I think is called Genealogy Translations and you can post something and ask someone to translate it. I wonder if there are any Yiddish readers on there. Or maybe somebody on Tracing the Tribe.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’d really rather not use Facebook for this, but I may have a look on one of the Jewish genealogy sites. Unfortunately, I left JewishGen when I finished doing my family tree, but I don’t really want to rejoin the site. I’m sure I’ll find someone to translate it one day. 🙂

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