Speaking Yiddish In Poland
“Most adult male Jews could handle at least three languages: they used Hebrew in the synagogues and houses of study, Yiddish in the home, and—to Gentiles—the language of the land in which they lived. My father, a workingman denied the equivalent of a high school education in Poland, handled Yiddish, English, Hebrew, and Polish. Jews were linguists of necessity.” Leo Rosten
I chose to travel to Poland on an organized tour with the Jewish Heritage Museum accompanied by Rabbi Amichai Lau Lavie. I wanted to be able to process what we were seeing and to be protected as much as possible from antisemitism or a stupid comment. Three million Jews died in Poland. I couldn’t separate that.
On the first night in Kraków, we had a meeting and the rabbi said,”We are pilgrims. We are on a pilgrimage – a journey.” I thought, “No, definitely not. I am a traveler. I am on a trip.” I have learned that when I have a very strong reaction against something, to pay attention because it is probably where I am supposed to be.
Someone starts to sing a song in Yiddish and I feel a pain in my chest. Yiddish is the language that the pogroms in Eastern Europe and the Nazis tried to destroy. To me, it has always been the language of the broken – the immigrants from the pogroms, the old people with heavy accents, the Holocaust survivors and the tenements. My grandparents died when i was young and my parents were born here so it wasn’t as much a part of my life as other people. It was important to them that we spoke proper English. I lived in an immigrant community so I heard it. I know that song – not just from Schindler’s List but from somewhere deep in an early childhood memory.
This group knows a lot about Yiddish. I didn’t want any part of that broken world so I know very little. I think some of it was fear – growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust. Yiddish words are part of the vernacular but I have never used them. I was going to be a part of mainstream America and not an immigrant culture.
The Rabbi is from a rabbinical Polish family. . He is clearly on a pilgrimage to know his family better and share it with us. “That’s nice for him,” I think to myself.
As I watch and listen to him go through his history at the places we visit, I learn about the Yiddish of a thriving culture with music, theater, and literature.
There were many great scholars, writers, artists and historians who I knew nothing about. I learn about how the Hasidic Jews came to dress like that. It was not all Fiddler On The Roof. My ancestors come alive in his family stories. They aren’t just sepia photographs anymore. I see the temples they might have gone to and places they might be buried.
Maybe I was walking on streets that they once walked on.
The Yiddish culture is part of my heritage and of my children’s heritage. Our history wasn’t in German or Polish or English. Our grandparents read books and newspapers and spoke in Yiddish.
It is a language and culture that was valuable in its own right and it was worth passing on. All the people who could have taught that to me are gone. Our stories are important and my story began in a language that I only know a few words of. It sounds like the beginning of a journey to me.
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