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.

1 comment:

  1. I read this when you posted it, Carol, but couldn’t comment then. I love it how some subjects cross all cultural and language barriers. Children are guaranteed to break them down completely.


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