Friday, September 22, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: Growing Up, Part 1

Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn

“Der seykhl iz a krikher.”
Ignaz Bernstein
Jüdische Sprichwörter und Redensarten (1908)

This is Part 1 of a two-part essay on Growing Up; next week is Part 2.


Up until the age of five, when I started kindergarten, I spoke Yiddish and understood it, at least as well as any person of that age could. My father spoke to me in Yiddish and I responded accordingly, which made perfect sense, since this was my father’s mameloshn; my mother preferred English, having been born in Montreal, so she spoke to us in English and I in return.

My parents spoke to each other in Yiddish and (perhaps to their dismay) I understood mostly everything, or at least I knew when they were talking about me or my brothers, about something they didn’t want us to know when they thought I was asleep. I remember going every day to pick up the newspapers at the corner kiosk, and later at the store in the indoor plaza near our house: one of them was the Forverts (“The Jewish Daily Forward”), a daily Yiddish newspaper published in New York City since 1897; its founding editor was Abraham Cahan [1860–1951]. See also [here]. It was a veltele, a world within a world. I had a happy childhood.

At times, my father would want to discuss with me an article that he read and thought I would find interesting; often he was right, since I was a curious and inquisitive child. There was also the popular weekly Yiddish radio show that my father listened to religiously every Sunday at 11 a.m.: The Forward Hour, which was broadcast on WEVD from New York City. I did find the opening theme music memorable, and I would at times listen to the show with my father. I don’t remember him missing a program. (Hank Sapoznik gives a lecture (haltn a lektsye) on the importance of the show to the Yiddish-speaking community; it ends with a short piece of the show’s theme music.)

But as the years went by, my Yiddish skills declined as my English skills (and French to a much lesser extent) improved. After my father passed away, in 1980 (I just turned 23), I could understand Yiddish perfectly well, but I could hardly speak it. Given my desire then to assimilate into the Canadian culture, and become a “true Canadian,” Yiddish became less important and then unimportant, an artifact of the past, even an embarrassment. In response, I avoided all things Yiddish. Thus, with such thinking, my Yiddish understanding declined, as did my sensitivity to all things Yiddish.

It was as if I had (unconsciously) incorporated the thought, the narrative, if you will—no doubt influenced by my academic experience and the books that I read, that British culture, in the grand Shakespearean sense, was the height of western civilization, and perhaps of all civilization. That this was superior culture, while Yiddihkayt was decidedly inferior. Such was the message when reading British literature, that Marlowe’s Barabas, Shakespeare’s Shylock, Dickens’ Fagin or  George du Maurier’s Svengali (giving rise to the term “svengali”) were somehow a true representation of Jews.

Yet, being curious and inquisitive, I had questions when I read these works, such as this. How likely was it that Shakespeare or Marlowe ever met a Jew?  Jews were expelled from England in 1290 by Edward 1, and not readmitted until 1656 by Oliver Cromwell, which was not so much a formal readmission, but an implicit acknowledgement that the presence of Jews in London would be tolerated. It wasn’t until 1858 that Jewish males in England could take a seat in parliament and not until 1890 when Jews would achieve complete emancipation. By this time, “46,000 Jews lived in England,” writes the Jewish Virtual Library, a tiny fraction of the population.

Yet, the Jews—whether present or not—somehow represented a threat to Christianity; and so Jews and Judaism were continually put on trial and found not only wanting but guilty. That these works (and many others) were considered “artistic” and “high art” could not cover up the fact that I found them blatantly anti-Semitic. [I recommend that you read the article, “Shylock and Anti-Semitism,” by Morris U. Schappes, in Jewish Currents: June 1962.]

Undoubtedly, Shakespeare knew his audience and pandered to them and their Christian views, where Christian mercy was deemed more important than Jewish justice. Yet, as much as this is put forth in this play, Shakespeare’s characters generally show little mercy in most of his other plays. [I recommend that you read “Shylock Among the Hooligans,” by George Jochnowitz, posted on this blog: August 1, 2011.]

No doubt this play, deemed a comedy, was a hit, Shakespeare, the successful playwright-businessman, made a ton of money and the patrons went home satiated, satisfied and smug. It was one big laugh-fest. All’s well that ends well! That they, these “Christians” might have loved money, were miserly or mean-spirited, and schemed and manipulated others to obtain it (i.e., “filthy lucre”) seemed to have escaped their notice. Yet, such might be among the most universal traits that humanity shares. Mercy, on the other hand, is a rare quality and all the more rarer when much is at stake.

For years, I was both embarrassed and bothered that such a shallow portrayal was so well received in Britain, Canada and America, and particularly in the halls of academia, who in their appreciation and esteem of Shakespeare, Marlowe and Dickens found reason and justification to view “the Jew” as not trustworthy, not “Christian,” and thus not worthy of sympathy. What they found noble, I found troubling and disturbing, no matter how hard I tried to feel otherwise. Oy vey ist mir!

You see, it was not to be, particularly if I were to remain true to me. We are not on the same side; we do not think in the same way. Terms like “Judeo-Christian” obscure fundamental differences between Jews and Christians, between Judaism and Christianity; it is just another fancy word for Christian supersessionism. Acceptance of the Christian-based narrative (often called Judeo-Christian to appear inclusive when this is never the intent), so ingrained in western culture and civilization that we forget it’s there, meant a denial of myself and my Jewish heritage. This was a bad deal, no doubt, and deep in my Yidisher neshomeh, I knew it.

Even so, it took me a long time to do something positive about it; I had wandered off and I needed to return home. This will be discussed in next week’s post.

—Peretz ben Ephraim, September 22, 2017


  1. Bravo!
    Ms. Shira lives most of the year in Israel, and some of the year in NYC, where she balance her new-found orthodoxy with a love of singing, teaching and pulling all-nighters. She is the eldest daughter of Babette (Fega Blema), who began unburying her Yiddish roots with the tender care of Sheva Zucker and YIVO. Babette was born in 1948. Shira was born in 1976.


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