My childhood was filled with Jewish cuisine; the smell of Kugel, a sweet noodle casserole, Brisket, matzo ball soup, and mandel bread, a cookie similar to biscotti, lingered throughout my home year round. Hebrew prayers, and Yiddish words and phrases echoed off the walls. I never understood these strange words and giggled when they would be spoken. For my sister and me, they were like a secret language that only my parents were able to understand. Like their own ancestors, who prior to the first crusade used the language as a tool of separation, my parents also used the words to their benefit.
Whenever my sister and I were not privy to certain information, or our presence was not welcome, my parents would whisper to one another, ‘Shh, the kinder.’ They’re whispers were never quite soft enough; because, we always heard them, which led to incessant pleading regarding what needed to be kept secret. Often when entering the kitchen, I would say, ‘the kinder, the kinder, better be quiet.’
Some words became separators, while others became used as signifiers of love.
‘You have such a shana ponem,’ my father would say after hugging me tightly and kissing me on the cheek.
‘Shana ponem?’ I asked.
‘A beautiful face, you are my shana ponem.’
I loved being my father’s shana ponem, but my mother had another name by which she called me.
‘Bubeleh,’ she would say, ‘dinner’s ready.’
I never asked the meaning, but later learned it was an endearing term for loved ones.
For the longest time, I believed that I was my mother’s only Bubeleh, but years later heard her call my older sister the same term. I was astounded, shocked, even slightly hurt. After this, the term became slightly tainted, and I disheartened. I always imagined that she referred to my sister by another nickname, like Boshe (her Hebrew name) or even just B, but my term, my ‘Bubeleh,’ Oy vai iz mir! I still like to think that she refers to only me by this name; and it was a mere slip of the tongue. Denial does a lot for my self-esteem.
Other words and sayings sparked interest in my little ears, such as ‘toches,’ ‘bupkis,’ and‘shmuts.’
‘Sit on your toches,’ my mother would insist.
‘That’s complete bupkis,’ she’d pronounce to my father.
'Nonsense, Bubeleh. Your father is speaking complete nonsense!’
‘There’s shmuts all over your shirt, Doe,’ she’d announce while wiping it away with a wet cloth.
Certain words and sayings weren’t revealed until I aged, because they weren’t ‘kinder, friendly,’ such as ‘putz,’ the slang term for a man who is in fact a dick, or ‘ kish mir en toches,’ which literally means ‘kiss my ass.’
As is evident, the Yiddish language is as much a part of my youth, as is, the shmuts that always landed on my school uniform, the sound of the washer and dryer constantly running in the house, or the smell of fresh mandel bread baking in the oven.
I always wondered the origin of these words that enriched my life and made my own family unique. I asked my mother who had introduced her to the language and she told me that her own mother and father had taught her them while growing up in Dayton, Ohio. Her own mother had even called her bubeleh, and now she was able to call me the same name of love. I never had the chance to meet this wonderful woman, she passed before my birth, but realize that this passing of tradition gave me a part of her, and thus, when I have my own little ones I look forward to referring to them with the same name.
The language began as the primary language of the Ashkenazic Jews, which referred to the Jews residing along the Rhine River in northern France and western Germany. It started as a Germanic dialect, but transformed to one that included elements of Hebrew, Arabic, Slavic, and Romance languages. The persecution of Jews in this region during the Crusades led to its spread to Lithuania and Poland. At this time, Jews used the language to their benefit. They began to isolate themselves from Non-Jews and formed their own culture and economy in which this language was spoken. It defined them and aided in the promise of their future in a society that did not want them.
This thought changed in the late 18th and 19th century, when Jews began to encourage an immersion of themselves into the Western European culture. During the Haskalah, a period of Jewish enlightenment based on the European enlightenment, the use of Yiddish declined and was looked down upon. It became a symbol of the old and unworldly. Suddenly, Jews no longer wanted to separate themselves; but instead wanted to once again be a part of the crowd.
The decline of this language coincided with the death of the six million Jews who lost their lives in the Holocaust. Those who survived the holocaust and remained in the Soviet Union found that it had been outlawed by Stalin. Without Jews to carry on and transmit the traditions and language, it withered and almost died, but my own family, exists as a symbol of the strength in which Jews possess.
Today, a small resurgence of the language can be heard in among the ultra-orthodox population of New York,
who consider it to be their primary means of communication. In 2004 it was estimated that less than a quarter of a million people in the United States fluently spoke the language. Interestingly, although it is a somewhat dead language, many universities have begun teaching it and there are even Yiddish studies departments at Harvard, Columbia and Oxford.
Although spoken by few, a complete demise of the language appears impossible, as is proven by my own parents, who can still be heard ‘hushing around the kinder,’ or myself who still believes that although men consistently reassert themselves as pricks, one day, (oh, I pray) I’ll meet a nice jewish bocher, who loves my shana ponem.