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.
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.
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.