Friday, September 29, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: Growing Up, Part 2

Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn

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

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


Nu, a funny thing happened as I got older, got married and had children of my own; I wanted to listen to and speak Yiddish; I yearned for the language of my youth. This was more than nostalgia, though that no doubt played a part in my thinking. There is a wonderful word in Yiddish, di yerushe (“the legacy”), which explains it, and how I would like this passed down to the next generation.

I wanted my children to understand the world of my parents and in particular that of my father, who was born in Poland in the early years of the 20th century, when there was a thriving di yidishe velt. I wanted this to survive with the best of health. If only the next generation could understand why this world is so important. It took me many decades “wandering in the wilderness” (appealing because it doesn’t appear wild) to appreciate it, and here I am.

Thank goodness that the Internet, and in particular Youtube, provides countless opportunities to listen to Yiddish performances, both old and modern. There is so much Yiddish taking place: for example, I have discovered singers like Chava Albertstein, Isa Kremer. Moishe Oysher and Aaron Lebedeff; and actors like Leo Fuchs, Menasha Skulnick, Bella Mysell, and Molly Picon.

Equally contributing to my education is the discovery of so many sites in the last month or so. I have added a section to my blog where I list these sites, now numbering in the dozens, a list that will no doubt grow. They are on the left, if you are interested.

While it might or might not be true that Yidn are smarter—there is really no universal standard way to measure such things, Nobel Prizes is only one measure—it is true, as our history shows, that Jews do ask the right questions. While intelligence is no doubt important—we can see what happens when there is a lack of it—it is more important that intelligence is used with the purpose of a moral good, or moralishkayt. This is seykl, or wisdom. With this in mind, I would suggest that a better barometer of a culture’s health and well-being is how it asks moral questions and, equally important, how it responds to them.

Such is a key and essential part of Jewish culture, both religious and secular, comprising di Yiddishe layt. The whole basis of Judaic culture is learning, debating, arguing (even or especially with God, the Creator of the Universe) and coming to an understanding, where and how we can apply moral knowledge to our world, with the purpose of making it better. Judaism is about the individual grappling with the great moral questions, alongside other Jews, and finding his place, more so his moral path (moralish drkh), in the world. This, among many reasons, is why I am a Jew.

As for Shakespeare, whom I mentioned in the first part of this essay—and I say this in earnest without any apologies—I find his writing tedious and boring, bereft of moral and philosophical significance. If you never read Shakespeare, you will be no poorer from it. But if you do read him, you will want this time lost returned to you. Such echoes the thoughts of that great Russian writer (and philo-Semitic) Leo Tolstoy in his essay, “Tolstoy on Shakespeare” (1906), which had the firm support of Bernard Shaw, the Irish playwright.

Truly, I don’t have this English love and admiration of the Bard, but then again I don’t have this English cast of mind, but why would I? I am not English; I am not an Anglophile. His works do not speak to my soul, chiefly because they are based on Christianity, a foreign religion, an alien way of thought. As such, they are not easily accessible, and, moreover, they are hardly desirable. Now that I have said this, I feel better.

Since I am a Jew, I can easily access and value Yiddish works, both serious and comedic, both written and visual. I have discovered that Yiddish opens another world, rich in history and culture that resonates with me. That there is a wealth of Yiddish poetry and literature, of Yiddish music and drama, and of Yiddish art and humour that deepens our understanding of the human condition, and that certainly matters to me. Whether others outside Di yidishe velt view it as high art matters little to me. I doubt that it will, but why should it?

Mayle; this is not their world and it is important to say, how can it be? Equally important, because of who I am and the way I think, Yiddishkayt undoubtedly matters to me, even though I didn’t always want to acknowledge it. Well, I am a slow learner, but it is never too late. There is actually a Yiddish way of thinking (a Yidisher kop), which has everything to do with the language and the history of the people who spoke it the last 1,000 years. (Language, after all, informs thinking.)

Now that I am approaching my sixth decade, I am actually quite excited about having returned to my Yiddish roots, reclaiming it, so to speak, as my rightful heritage, finding its language rich and beautiful. Perhaps I can eventually surpass the level of my five-year-old self. (To the Yiddishists out there: do not hesitate to correct any errors in usage. A sheynem dank.)

—Peretz ben Ephraim, September 29, 2017

Tonight is Erev Yom Kippur, the beginning of the traditional 25-hour period of fasting and prayer, where even the least-observant Jews around the world partake in some way. A typical greeting is Gemar chatimah tovah” (גמר חתימה טובה; “A good final sealing.”). Tonight is also when Kol Nidre (כָּל נִדְרֵי; Aramaic: “all vows”) is recited; it is not so much a prayer but a legal ritual. May you have an easy and meaningful fast.

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