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.