Thinking in Yiddish

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Michele Byers reflects on learning Yiddish during lockdown.

Not knowing Yiddish is one of those things I’ve been lamenting most of my life. And, in a way, the lamentation is itself as much a part of my secular Jewish identity as knowing Yiddish might have been. I expect that it’s like this for a lot of people. I have a cousin my age who grew up in a modern Orthodox family, who apparently gave her mother the same grief I gave mine over her lack of Yiddish. So, it’s not a matter of religiosity, but of a sense of shared cultural history, and of, well, lack.

In Montreal in the 1970s and 1980s, where and when I grew up, there were plenty of Yiddish speakers. There was (and is) a large Hasidic community and parochial schools where Yiddish was taught alongside Hebrew, and there were immigrants and refugees like my maternal grandparents for whom Yiddish was their first and primary language. Some families, members of, for example, the Workman’s Circle, were Yiddishists, and Yiddish was spoken in the home, even in my generation. I have cousins who grew up speaking Yiddish at home, and some of them have kept the tradition alive for their own children. But my experience of Yiddish was largely passive and auditory, the oceanic backdrop of hours spent with my grandparents and their friends throughout my childhood.

Almost twenty years ago, when I moved to Halifax (Nova Scotia, not northern England), I went to synagogue for a while, tried to learn to read Hebrew, and participated in an adult B’not Mitzvah (that’s for another column). As much as I enjoyed all of these, they didn’t stick. After all, growing up, my family didn’t go to shul or speak Hebrew. It made me, in the long run, feel more like an outsider rather than less.

But Yiddish stayed on my mind. I’d been doing work in Jewish Cultural Studies for a while when I started writing about this really funny little Yiddish web series called YidLife Crisis. I couldn’t quite understand what they were saying (in the first season, my mom insists they didn’t know what they were saying either—bad translation!), but I liked to close my eyes and listen to the sounds of these Montreal Jews speaking Yiddish (even if badly), to the familiar geographic inflection. To the particular musicality of Yiddish. I wrote. And I wrote. And I wrote.

Then, earlier this year I watched Unorthodox (which you can read about here and here). As a TV scholar, I’m certainly attuned to the controversies and critiques of the series. But what caught me was the language. Listening to Yiddish. Again, I didn’t understand it, or not quite—listening to Yiddish, for me, is like trying to remember something that I know I know, but I just can’t quite get it to move into the accessible part of my memory where I can grab it—but I found enormous pleasure in being in the language. It felt familiar. Like home.

This year I’m on sabbatical. It’s lovely, especially because of Covid. It makes it both more and less sabbatical-like (if my other sabbaticals, in more normal times, are anything to go on). In September I was trying to figure out what to do with my time, and I stumbled onto the Workman’s Circle website and decided to take a beginner Yiddish class.

I’m halfway through.

There are about eight of us. We meet by Zoom every week. I’m the only Canadian (the rest are in the US), but I’m somewhere in the middle, age-wise. Our teacher and his partner are developers of an online learning platform called Yiddishpop. It’s kind of geared to kids—and it’s fun. And hard. My brain feels like it’s working in a way that’s both familiar and not. But there is so much pleasure in it too.

Last night, I was watching the anime show Fullmetal Alchemist (maybe I’ll write about that sometime, too) with my son and I realized that I now knew enough Yiddish words that I could comment on the show. I said, aloud (remember, I’m only 5 weeks in—Yiddish speakers out there, be kind. Don’t expect perfection or rigour… yet):

Der robot hot lang fis.
Di yingl iz niderik. Er hot a shmutzik pomin.
Zey esn di groysr shnitkes mit kez un pomedoren.
Di monster hot dray oygn, a komish pomin, un finf hent.
Di yingl un di robot zaynen khaveyrim.

He said, What?, and I laughed and told him, and we both laughed, again, together.

But what amazed me was that, finally, I was thinking in Yiddish!

Art by Gus Condeixa


Michele Byers is professor at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She just finished reading I Love to Watch and wonders about an alternate universe where her love affair with Buffy the Vampire Slayer turned into a job as a TV critic for The New Yorker rather than a PhD (about Buffy).
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