Wednesday 26 July 2023

The Adventures of L-Plate Bubbe: 'Speak the speech trippingly on the tongue'

So my Yiddish class is now on its annual break. This means that as a keen student and committed adult learner, it behoves me to continue working by myself over the Summer.

Thus I am ploughing on with Colloquial Yiddish (the textbook), commiserating with Dovid that his family are all totally meshuggeneh (mad) while admiring Chana's extensive apartment.

I have also purchased a Yiddish Dictionary & Phrasebook because it seemed like a good idea. Now, a quick recap: Yiddish is the lingua franca of the Jewish population (not all: in Israel they speak Hebrew). It is a universal way for Jews to be able to communicate with other Jews whose first language might be Polish, German, Lithuanian etc. 

My mother who worked for a Berlin-based refugee organisation trying to get Jews out of Germany before Hitler closed the borders, used to go to international conferences where Yiddish was the language employed by delegates and speakers. However, although it is a recognised language in many countries (Sweden, I learned recently), it has no country of its own. 

Like its speakers, Yiddish wanders the earth, refusing to be wiped out by events like the Holocaust and allowing itself to be mangled by people like me. This lack of a 'Yiddish country' is reflected in the phrasebook. For instance, search as I might, there are no phrases demanding consular access. 

However, on the plus side, the Yiddish Dictionary & Phrasebook does go into great detail about the three big Jewish concerns: food, health and how to complain. Other phrasebooks might have a few instructions on ordering a meal or dealing with an illness ... the Yiddish Dictionary & Phrasebook has PAGES! 

Dining out, 9 pages/ Food & Drink,13 pages
 If the food is too hot, too cold, not what you ordered, too expensive, too spicy, not spicy enough, if you want to sit over here, over there, by a window, in a corner, you think the waiters are inattentive, too attentive, if you have waited too long, if you want to pay separately, together, by cash, by cheque, by barter ... you will find a phrase.

Health, 20 pages
Similarly, if you have any minor, major, strange, unidentified, possibly fatal, ailment involving some body part, if you are limping, bleeding, allergic, vomiting, anaemic, constipated, need pills, potions, a bandage, a doctor, a hospital, medical attention of any sort there will be a phrase. Believe me. I have read them all.

Armed with these essentials, the Yiddish speaking traveller is equipped to confront the perplexities and problems of modern travel. Thus, if a fellow voyager asks Vos makst du? (how are you?) it is possible to reply with absolute accuracy. 

Similarly, an invitation to brontsh (brunch) or vetshere (dinner) can be accepted in the full knowledge that one's ability to kvetch (complain) is amply and fully catered for. Which, in essence, is all the Yiddish speaker needs to know.

Saturday 1 April 2023

The Adventures of L-Plate Bubbe: Wine & Tears

This month (April) marks the festival of Passover (Pesakh in Yiddish), when Jewish communities and families remember the story of how the Jews, led by Moses, escaped from slavery under the Egyptian ruler Pharoah. It is a festival of joy at liberation, but sorrow at the suffering that preceded it. Passover always comes before Easter. There is a reason for this and I'll explain it shortly.

The festival is celebrated by a special family meal, called a Seder, which consists of prayers, blessings, songs, giving thanks for deliverance and looking forward to the coming of the Messiah. The photo shows my Passover plate: each of the little bowls represents some symbolic item relevant to the biblical story, which is told over the course of the evening, culminating in a lovely meal. 

(You can find out more about the plate and its symbolic contents here )

The Passover meal was the one Yeshua (Jesus) took part in and is referred to in the Christian New Testament as 'The Last Supper'. This is where the two religions (or the extension of one by the other) coalesce. Christianity focuses on what happened AFTER the meal, but it is clear from reading the text, that it was a traditional Seder.

My family always used to attend synagogue for the Seder meal, which meant we kids had to behave better, couldn't leave the table for any reason whatsoever, and we got ribena instead of wine (such a disappointment). 

The whole concept of the Seder is not only to recall a very grim period in Jewish history, but to make sure the memory is passed on to future generations. Thus there is a point, early on in the celebration, when the youngest child asks 4 questions. They're called the Ma Nishtana, and revolve around querying why this night is different from other nights in food, in the way people sit at table etc. 

Every Jewish child in a religious household HAS to learn it, in case they end up being the youngest. I remember the sheer terror of realising one year that I was that child and I was going to be called upon to perform. I think being able to recite the Ma Nishtana is another of those Jewish identifiers, along with possessing your mother's recipe for chicken soup. 

It is also something that never leaves you. Even at the great age of 72, I can still, if prompted, recite the Ma Nishtana. If you are Jewish and reading this, I bet you can too!

Wednesday 15 March 2023

The Adventures of L-Plate Bubbe: Homework (Jews do it backwards)

So, I have come to the conclusion that these gurus and so-called lifestyle experts who recommend learning a language in old age to keep the brain active, haven't actually tried it. As soon as a new piece of vocabulary arrives, one learned earlier disappears.

In nautical terms, we are Week 5: Still At Sea.

Luckily there are only three main tenses in Yiddish: present, past, and future, although I have discovered a fourth one, which creeps over me whenever I am faced with another piece of dialogue featuring Rokhel and Dovid, the Janet and John of my Yiddish primer.

For those who have never seen Yiddish on the page, it reads right to left, which meant initially I found myself writing the English translation back to front. Don't know what part of my brain that came from.

Then there is the vexed question of the vowels. In Hebrew, which I learned from age 7, and have now forgotten entirely, the vowels are lavish, plentiful and sit under the consonants like good helpful little soldiers. In Yiddish, they lurk in unaccustomed places or are absent without leave and you are just expected to know they are there. Even though they clearly aren't. 

The rest of the class marches on. I straggle behind them, laboriously spelling out the words letter by letter in a strangled whisper and hoping that the very sociable cat that belongs to one of the younger students will make an unexpected appearance on her screen, so we can all be distracted and I can catch up, albeit briefly.

For our current homework (Yiddish: heimarbet) we have been asked  to write about our family. The rest of the class, shiny-eyed and keen, have requested complicated lists of words like 'step grandchild', 'adopted daughter', 'same-sex couple' etc. My offering consists of four short sentences:

I have a husband. 

I have a daughter. 

She has 2 children. 

My parents are dead.

time in better get will it but

Thursday 2 March 2023

The Adventures of L-Plate Bubbe: Bus Girls


Jews are probably the most travelled people on earth, and I'm not talking air miles here. From the Diaspora to today, they have schlepped their families and belongings from one country to another, building communities, setting down roots, starting businesses, and then at the whim of a ruler, a government or a baying mob, packing up and schlepping their stuff somewhere else.

I am in New York, having schlepped myself here via American Airlines. I'm not immigrating, I'm visiting family, but I know there have been Jews coming here since the 1840s, so I'm hoping to encounter some Yiddish speakers to try out my very basic attempts at speaking.

First attempt comes while visiting the Jewish Museum close to Central Park. I spot a couple of Jewish mums with their daughters. I edge closer and ask if they 'rednt Yiddish?'  One nods. I try a bit more. She frowns, corrects my pronunciation (Two is 'zway', not 'zwei' ~I have defaulted to German again). Discouraged, I move off.

Now it's my final day in the city. The kids are back at school and I'm on the Lower East Side, visiting The Tenement Museum, one of my favourite places. I lunch at Katz, managing to try out a few basic phrases, much to the amusement of the cutter serving me.

Then back on the bus. Two stops and a couple of women my age get on. They park themselves behind me and ... whoah! they start chatting to each other in Yiddish. At least I think it's Yiddish. Now's my chance. I turn round. Take a deep breath and launch out.  "Shalon aleichem. Ick heisse Carol. Ick com fum England," I say, smiling with fake confidence.

There is a pause. I am eyed thoughtfully. Then the greeting is returned, politely. I explain about learning Yiddish at 72, and why I'm doing it. The women (we'll call them Sara and Rokhel) smile back cautiously. There is another pause. The conversation founders. 

Then inspiration hits me. "Host du ayniklakh?" (Do you have grandkids?) Immediately, their eyes light up. They nod. Suddenly, the atmosphere changes completely. Phones are dug from handbags. Photos are found, passed round. I show them my pictures in return. We coo and admire.

And all at once, we are no longer three strangers; we are united in our love for our grandchildren. There is a word for this in Yiddish: naches. It means bursting with pride over a child's achievements. So here we are, three dames of the Diaspora, three bus bubbes, sharing a moment's naches on an uptown bus in New York

And it makes all my linguistic struggles totally worthwhile.

Tuesday 14 February 2023

The Adventures of L-Plate Bubbe: The Tao of Chicken Soup


What makes me a Jew? It's a good question. And like everything else connected with Judaism, there isn't one single answer. Sorry. Look up an official definition and you get something like: Jews are an ethnoreligious group and nation originating from the Israelites and Hebrews of historical Israel and Judah. 

So, maybe that.

Jewish law (Halacha) states that to be Jewish, you have to be born of a Jewish mother, as the descent is matrilineal. However, the Bible (Torah) sees Jewish identity as patrilineal. 

See what I mean?

When I was applying to get my family's German citizenship 'restored' after the UK left the EU, the German government was only interested in whether my family's loss had occurred on my father's side. However when my brother's secular marriage broke down and he went frum, emigrated to Israel and subsequently wished to marry an Orthodox Jewess, my mother had to prove she had married in synagogue for it to be allowed. (The first marriage was discounted as the former wife was a gentile).

There are also various rules, complicated definitions, arguments, counter arguments etc. for people who decide to convert, or people who have one non-Jewish parent. We Jews love a good debate. We will kvetch and kibbitz until the sun goes down. And then some.

However, I believe there is one question that covers everything, and the answer to which proves definitely, once and for all time, whether you or I are really Jewish or not. And it is this: Do you have your mother's recipe for chicken soup?

I do.

                         My Mother's Chicken Soup

For this you will need a large pot, into which you put chopped celery, chopped onion, sliced carrots, then place on top a chicken (my mother used to actually pluck the chicken, then singe the remaining quills. I can still smell it). Add salt, peppercorns (my brother and I used to have a competition to see who had the most peppercorns: think 'Tinker tailor', Jewish style), and enough stock/water to cover the bird.

Slowly bring to the boil. Skim the fat off the surface ~ it's known as schmaltz, until the liquid is clear. Then cover and simmer very gently until the meat is so tender it falls off the bones.

Add some noodles to the pot and let them soften, just before dividing up the meat, the vegetables, and the lovely broth and placing it all in soup plates. My mother always served ours with thick slices of white bread to mop up the last of the soup.

Ess gezunterheit!


Monday 6 February 2023

The Adventures of L-Plate Bubbe: Screentime

The last time I studied a language, I was 12 years old. I wore a pleated navy skirt, shirt and tie, and sat in a room with 28 other girls. Back then, the biggest problem was always where to sit. The swotty teacher-pleasers positioned themselves at the front, where they could show off their ability and get their hands in the air a micro-second before everyone else had processed the question.

The back row was reserved for the slackers and troublemakers, who passed the time creating their own charisma-free environment while contributing as little as possible to the class. I was the only Jewish girl in a school of 800, at a time where teachers could nickname you 'it', or refer to 'people like you' without being accused of antisemitism.

Therefore, my modus operandi was to maintain as low a profile as I could, which was why I always lurked in the middle of the fourth row, head down, studiously avoiding any eye-contact or engagement.

Beginners' Yiddish is not like this at all.

The first difference is that there is nowhere to lurk. The class consist of 7 students and teacher. We are all visible all the time. It is disconcerting to see oneself on screen, peering confusedly into the ether, as if I have developed an alter ego. The alter ego hasn't a clue what is going on. 

The other students are way ahead of me, some having done previous courses. If you have ever read 'The Education of Hyman Kaplan' by Leo Rosten, I am Mrs Moskovitch. I need a pre-Beginners' Yiddish course.

But this is lesson one, so it is too early to give up, even though I am reminded of all the differentiated worksheets I used to produce as a teacher for what were euphemistically referred to as the 'learning challenged', which is now me. 

I have learned two phrases, however: min nomen ist Carol (my name is Carol) and ich hob zer leeb ketzen, (I really like cats). On this basis, the cat thinks I have made a promising start.

Tuesday 31 January 2023

The Adventures of L-Plate Bubbe : 'My Yiddish Notebook'

Before embarking upon any new enterprise, it is always good to do some pre-prep. This is especially true when one is about to begin learning a new language. 

Thus, while waiting for my Yiddish classes (Absolute Beginners) to start, I have decided to prepare myself for the challenges ahead by plunging straight in and acquiring some stationery. 

Yiddish is a polyglot language. Much of it derives from Hebrew and Aramaic, but there are also borrowings from German, French and Italian. Having established itself in Europe with the migration of Jews in the 10th century, the language did a bit more borrowing from various Slavic and Romance languages.

However, the Holocaust, when 6 million Jews were wiped out, almost marked the 'death' of Yiddish, as nearly all the main speakers were killed. To make matters worse, after World War Two, Yiddish as a spoken language by was banned by Stalin. So it looked for a while as though Yiddish would morph into another dead language.

But it lives.

What I particularly like about Yiddish is that it is the language of the home, spoken, taught and passed down by women. It exists in the female space. Hebrew is the language of the Torah, the Talmud, the Cheder ~ traditionally male spaces. Yiddish belongs to us women, to the kitchen, the table, the family gathered to eat and share.

With that it mind, I have chosen a notebook that contains all the colours of the rainbow, as Yiddish contains all the linguistic borrowings. And two pink pens. Because.

As for the title of this piece? There is a lovely Yiddish word ~ Schmaltz. It means (amongst other things) something very sentimental. When I was growing up, my parents possessed a scratchy 78rpm record of Sophie Tucker singing My Yiddishe Momme

If you copy the link you can listen to it here:

Monday 23 January 2023


There are many reasons why one might decide to learn a new language in old age. The major one seems to be the incentive to stave off dementia. Struggling to master basic tenses and phrases in supposed to sharpen the synapses and keep the mind agile for longer. Ditto doing a daily Sudoku.

Neither of these is why, at the age of 72, I have decided to learn Yiddish. 

"Why are you doing this?" You Must Be Mad (now relocated to New York) asked, when I informed her this weekend, via Facetime, of my decision. "You should learn something useful."

I pointed out that I am reasonably fluent in French, can speak German as long as I don't think about it too hard and thanks to L-Plate Grandad's Italian classes, I have a smattering of Italian...though I have not mastered the pluperfect tense (neither has he).

My decision to learn Yiddish is visceral: it's the language of my tribe; it's part of my Jewish identity, which is being threatened, mocked, abused and belittled and generally ignored. Yiddish was the lingua franca of European Jewry, a way that all those in the camps could confer. My mother spoke it. My grandparents who died at Auschwitz spoke it. Now, I want to speak it too.

And there is another reason, less noble. Yiddish has probably the BEST insults and original curses of any language on earth. I mean, SERIOUSLY the best. English invective is like watered down milk in comparison. So when I tell some corrupt MP: "May you live to build yourself a house from your kidney stones" I want to be able to say it in Yiddish. Because it sounds so much better.

So I have signed up to an online language class in Basic Yiddish. It might take a while to build up to the cursing, but one has to begin somewhere. I start in 2 weeks. There will be updates. Watch this space.

Tuesday 29 March 2022

VICTORIAN POVERTY: Coming to your neighbourhood soon

  "I was one day dealing with a case in which a poor woman was in great distress of mind because she had got some washing to do and had not the money to obtain the necessary materials wherewith to accomplish the work.

    "I shall lose eighteenpence if I can't get it done," she said, with tears in her eyes, "and perhaps lose other work too, for people who have washing to give out won't study you if you have to disappoint them."

"You don't look fit to stand at the wash-tub," I said, noting her weak and hunger-worn appearance.

"I could manage that all right," she exclaimed eagerly. "By working late I could get it done and take it home to-night, and then I could get something to eat out of the pay for it. As to eating, though," she added, " I am thinking more of the children than of myself. It is not often that we are so hard put to it, but this morning they had to go to school without breakfast, poor little things They knew it was my misfortune and not my fault that I had nothing for them to eat, and they tried to be brave and not to cry, but you could see their poor little lips quivering."
 I had every reason to believe that the woman was telling a literal and painful truth. Her husband was sober, and steady, and until a year previously had been a strong and capable labourer, able to command tolerably constant employment. But one day when engaged upon some heavy work he had, in labourers phrase, "overlifted" himself. From that time he had been, "off and on," an out-patient of various hospitals, and was practically an invalid.
"You had better get something to eat before starting your work," I said, in reference to her last remarks. "Here are two tickets, each for a shilling's worth of goods; they will enable von to get a little food, as well as the washing materials you require."

"Oh, thank you," she exclaimed, her face flushing with pleasure; "won't the little ones be delighted when they come home and find I have got a dinner for them?" - The Pinch of Poverty, by The Riverside Visitor

Saturday 26 March 2022

The iPhone has landed!

As some of you know (see previous blog if you don't) I have recently parted company with a certain media platform, represented by a small winged blue avian. Now, I am NOT the sort of individual to reacts well to be chucked off stuff (also see previous blog), so having tried various return pathways, and being told '*itter says no', it was decided (note the distancing phrase) to buy an iPhone.

It seemed a good idea when suggested. I could join the 99.9% of the population. No more lurking about in the Doro cave. Bright new horizons of communication, bathed in the sunshine of up-to-dateness beckoned. I was seduced. My only stipulation was that the new phone had to be RED.

And it arrived. And it was red. And so the nightmare began. Going from the dumbPhone to this phone was like landing on a new planet without a Lonely Planet travel guide. In the past few days I have reached levels of incompetence so low you couldn't limbo under them.

1. I thought ALL these devices were called iPhones. Yup. Only was abused of this when I met a friend for coffee and was told that her phone was a Samsung.

2. You know that thing where the optician says: 'So, what's the lowest line you can read on the screen?' and your brain goes: 'What line?' That. They don't make these devices for the myopic, do they?

3. It doesn't like my cold finger (if you wish to sing 'Cold Finger' at this point, please don't). 

4. Autocorrect. The typist's worst enema. I bought a lovely jumper for Small in the sale, took a picture and sent it to You Must Be Mad in New York. The jumper was by Boden. NOT BIDEN - OK???

5. I have lost 25.8k lovely followers by being chucked off *witter. Given my lack of competence, I will probably never get them all back.

But. Rome wasn't burned in a day. And in 3 weeks, Little G (and Small) are coming to the UK for a visit, so I shall pick her brain, because even an 8 year old has to be more savvy than I am right now. Meanwhile it's a case of onward through the fog. Or  'frog' as autocorreect would probably say.