YIDDISH: THE LANGUAGE I WISH I’D LEARNED – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I grew up in a bilingual household. Everyone spoke both English and Yiddish. Both my parents and both my grandparents. It was spoken all the time in my home.

My grandfather actually spoke and read four languages, Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew and English. My grandmother spoke Russian and Yiddish in addition to English but not Hebrew.

My dad spoke German, Yiddish, some French and English. He had a knack for languages. At one point in his life he got into studying ancient cultures. He decided to learn the dead language Sanskrit, so he could read some ancient texts in the original. This is one of the things that most impressed me about my dad. His boundless curiosity, his drive and his perseverance. How many people would actually do that? How many people would even want to.

As an aside. In the 1930’s, my father didn’t like the way the wood floors were laid when he was building his house in Connecticut. They were laid with pegs, not nails, an old-fashioned technique. So he learned how to correctly lay the floor boards and redid it himself.

Anyway, my mom just spoke English and Yiddish, but a lot of conversations between the ‘grown ups’ in my family, were conducted in Yiddish. Unfortunately, no one tried to help me learn the language. In fact, they used it primarily to talk ‘over my head’ about things they didn’t want me to know about.

Me and my parents when I was about 8 years old

Early on I figured out when they were talking about my bedtime. One of the only phrases I learned in Yiddish is “I don’t want to go to bed”. It’s a pity that I never learned to speak a language that I heard every day growing up.

For years I didn’t even realize that Yiddish was a separate language. I was often confused about which words were English and which were Yiddish. For example, there is a large, spurting fountain or aerator near my house in Connecticut. My grandfather always referred to it as the “Shpritz vasser” or spraying water in Yiddish. I thought that was its English name and was surprised when no one knew what I was talking about when I used the phrase.

The Yiddish newspaper my grandfather always read

My mother always used the Yiddish word for tush or butt, “tuchas.” Again, I thought this was an American word and I used it all the time. My friends thought I was crazy.

I thought they were ignorant.

Yiddish is not a very useful language to know these days, but I think it would have been wonderful to have grown up speaking it, like everyone else in my family. It might even have helped me master other languages at school.

I took French through junior high and high school and I loved it. But I was better at reading than speaking. This is common because of the way languages are taught in America. I spent time in France as an adult and got a little better at speaking and understanding the language. But I could never really carry on an intelligent conversation.

I always regretted not being fluent in at least one other language. I’m surprised that my family didn’t want to pass down the tradition of speaking Yiddish. But they obviously didn’t care. That’s really a shame – for me.

8 thoughts on “YIDDISH: THE LANGUAGE I WISH I’D LEARNED – BY ELLIN CURLEY

  1. I wanted to learn the language, but my parents didn’t want us to learn it. To them, Yiddish was the language of the ghetto and they used it mostly to tell raunchy jokes and talk so the kids couldn’t understand. Almost no one in Israel spoke Yiddish and the language is essentially dead. A real waste.

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    • My family also wanted a language they could talk in that I wouldn’t understand as a child. They had nothing against the language itself. I don’t think it ever occured to them to actually teach it to me. Maybe it was already on its way to becoming a dead language and they figured what was the point.

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    • I went to France a few years ago and got one of those audio language teachers for French. It really helped. But I got stuck the same place I got stuck in high school, with the plus perfect and all the weird tenses. I used to be much more fluent when I traveled to France a lot in my thirties and forties. Even with the course, I’ve forgotten most of it except the very basic stuff.

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      • The trouble with book learning is you may know the grammar but you have to learn what sounds right. You only get that far by being immersed in it. However, none of this is wasted. What ever you pick up at one point will come more easily on another occasion.

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      • Not all of us have an ear for language. Everyone told me I’d have NO trouble with Hebrew because I was musical. Well, I had a terrible time with Hebrew and Owen, who is tone dead, picked it up in a couple of weeks. I do NOT have an ear for languages. Oh, but Garry does. He speaks a pretty decent Spanish and a fair bit of Vietnamese and others odds and ends he just picked up over the years. And he’s not the least bit musical.

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