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.