I have a lot in common with Solomon, my nine-year old California grandson, including a love of words. During last month’s visit to San Francisco, we did our customary spelling bee, and it was tough to stump him, but I managed with “enthusiasm.” Then he noticed that I’ve been reading a book called “Outwitting History,” and he asked me what it was about.
I told him that it is about a man named Aaron Lansky who, with the help of some friends, started searching for Yiddish-language books when he was a student at Hampshire College and has continued doing so for more than 20 years. So far, he has saved over 1.5 million volumes from destruction – scholarly works, poetry, novels, short stories, memoirs, you name it.
I asked Soli whether he knew what “Yiddish” means. He didn’t, so I told him it means “Jewish,” and it’s a language. “Does anyone speak it?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, “it’s a language that doesn’t want to die.”
I told him that when my grandparents were growing up in Russia, they knew Russian but spoke Yiddish at home. And, like thousands of others who emigrated from Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century, they brought it with them to this country. They learned English but never stopped speaking Yiddish, the “mamaloshen” (mother tongue).
I grew up on the fringes of their conversations, hearing but not paying close enough attention. I told Soli that I regret not learning the language but do know some words. “Would you like to hear a few?” I asked.
“Sure,” he answered.
I’m looking forward to his bar mitzvah, which marks a thirteen-year old Jew’s coming of age, which probably accounts for the first two words I came up with. The first one was “shul,” the Yiddish word for “synagogue.” Then I asked if he could pronounce ‘kh,” a sound that doesn’t exist in English, which has been compared to a backward snore. He could, so I gave him “chedar,” which literally means “room,” but is commonly used to refer to religious (Hebrew) school. I heard those words a lot between 1948, when Claremont acquired its “shul,” Temple Myer-David, and 1952, when my bar bitzvah took place there.
Soli remained interested. “Let me get a paper and pencil,” he said.
He loved the next word, “meshuganah,” which means “crazy,” and the one after that, “chochem” (two “kh’s” in one word), which means “wise man” but, when said with a certain intonation, means the opposite, someone who thinks he knows everything, a jerk.
He wanted more, so I came up with “tsores” (troubles), “schmooze” (chat), and “kibbitz” (gossip). “I like the way these words sound, Grandpa.”
How wonderful it is to share something with your grandchild, even if it happens accidentally. On the last day of my visit we drove Soli to school, and I told him I would give him a sentence my grandmother used to say, “Oy, vey is mere” (oh, woe is me). As he got out of the car and walked towards the school entrance I heard him saying, “Oy vey is mere” and laughing out loud.
I decided, right then, not to let this be a one-time event. I gave him a book, “The New Joys of Yiddish,” an updated version of “The Joys of Yiddish” published 50 years ago. “What should I look up?” he asked me.
“Try ‘naches,’” I suggested, the Yiddish word for that sense of pleasure and pride that a parent or grandparent derives from a child’s accomplishments. “That’s what you’re giving me.”
In other words, I “kvelled.”