Monday, March 1, 2021

SOL March 1: Yiddish

 It’s Slice of Life March, meaning I am going to once again try to write a slice of life every day this month. I haven’t been that consistent with Slice of Life Tuesday, but let’s hope the daily slice jump-starts the memory projects I’ve been sputtering in fits and starts. Here’s the first.


Last week, a friend sent me a link to a Yiddish version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” on YouTube. Before I even listened to it, I e-mailed my friend that I wished I could read or understand Yiddish. She responded with a link that offers a Yiddish word-of-the-day.

            I listened to the first word on the list, which was about parents-in-law and learned for the first time that calling one's grandparents bubbe and zayde were signs of respect. I had no idea! I thought they were just the Yiddish equivalents for granny and grandpa, which were the words I used as a child, and which I felt were more terms of familiarity than of respect.

            Background: My family is Jewish, and all my grandparents were immigrants in the decade before WWI. They were also leftists, so their relationship to Judaism as a religion was pretty nonexistent. But Yiddish isn’t the language of religion; it’s the language of the people. There were times in my childhood when my parents and grandparents had lively conversations in this other language, and if I asked what they were talking about, I was told it wasn’t for children, only for grownups. I was sent to a Yiddish shul for a year or so, but I don’t have the facility for languages that some do, so what I learned didn’t stick.

            More and more, I am finding questions I want to ask my parents, especially my mother, now that it is impossible to get answers. Like, how did they feel about Yiddish? Why did they make no effort to connect what I was learning in the Yiddish shul with the rest of my life? Of course, I know the Yiddish words that have been adopted into English: schlemiel, chutzpah, dreck, kibbitz, klutz, maven, etc. But I know those words as English words, and if my goyische husband asked me what a particular Yiddish word meant, I often couldn’t tell him. For a while, I thought all grandparents should speak with a slight accent, and that I was depriving my daughter of something, I didn’t really know what, by giving her grandparents who spoke English like the natives they were.

            My father understood Yiddish, but didn’t speak it, and as a child I marveled as his participation in this conversation, yet his contribution was always in English. Did he have the same lack of facility for language that I have? My mother’s first language was Yiddish, and she didn't really start learning English until she went to school, but I never asked her what that experience was like. I did tell her about the Yiddish Book Center, in Amherst, Mass., and we both contributed money to their efforts to collect books in Yiddish and hold Yiddish classes for young people. After my mother died, I kept her collection of books about Yiddish, but have only dipped into them, feeling they will raise more questions that can never be answered.

            As it happens, I recently used "tsuris" in an e-mail with another friend about a serious problem she was having. Now that I’m 78, will I finally start learning Yiddish?


I’m participating in the 14th annual Slice of Life Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers. This is day 1 of the 31-day challenge.  It’s not too late to make space for daily writing in a community that is encouraging, enthusiastic, and eager to read what you have to slice about.  Join in!




  1. You brought back so many memories for me. My father's parents only spoke Yiddish and my father communicated only in Yiddish to them. I wish I had been more astute back then when I was little and asked my dad to teach me. I often say the typical Yiddish words you listed in your slice because truth be told Yiddish words need lengthy English translations. Thanks for reviving these memories!

    1. thank you! All my grandparents spoke English quite well, so there was not any incentive on my part to learn Yiddish to speak with them. But when we're children, we just didn't think of what we're missing by not learning that other language — but also possibly for our parents' generation, speaking English was part of the Americanization process.