Learning something ‘nu’

Have you heard the joke about Bernie, who braves a terrible storm one night to slip into the bakery at closing time, just to order two bagels to take home with him?

You would have-if you were a student in David Levine and Thelma Edelstein’s Yiddish class at The Crown Center in University City.

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Even better, you would have understood the punch line:

“That’s all?” asks the baker. “Right,” says Bernie, “one for me and one for Bernice.” “Bernice is your wife?” asks the baker.

“Vos denkt ihr,” shriet Bernie, “Mein mama vet mie aroisshiken in azelcheh nacht?” (“What do you think,” hollers Bernie, “My mother would send me out on such a night?”)

Telling jokes is just one of the ways Levine and Edelstein encourage their students to brush up on the mame-loshn.

Class begins with a friendly show-and-tell, where students practice Yiddish the conversational way–by discussing their daily lives, everything from a recent doctor’s appointment to a granddaughter’s birthday party to the problems of a pet cat — oy vay!

Along the way, there are some poignant reminiscences, a few disagreements over dialect and lots of laughter about colorful Yiddish expressions.

“I grew up in Brooklyn, learning Yiddish — mostly Yiddish curses –among the pushcarts,” says Sylvia Slotkin, a Crown Center resident and class veteran. To prove her proficiency, she demonstrates one of her favorites: “Zolst vaksen vie a tsibele, mit dein hop in drerd!” (“You should grow like an onion, with your head in the ground!”)

Then there’s the common phrase, “Hok mir nit ah chainik!” that Trudy Bernstein remembers her mother, a Russian immigrant, using regularly to admonish her daughter. “It means, ‘Stop talking so much!” the Creve Coeur resident recalls.

Edelstein, trying to encourage a more scholarly approach, offers a literal translation. “It actually means ‘Don’t hit me with a tea kettle!'” she explains.

Marvelous phrases like that fascinate Levine, 87, a retired audiologist who grew up speaking Yiddish and Russian at his home in St. Louis. Like many Jews of his generation, he learned English when he went to grammar school, and though he continued to hear Yiddish at home, he spoke it less and less. Several years ago, he saw an ad to learn Yiddish in a Jewish Federation bulletin and says it “struck a chord.”

“I understood Yiddish my entire adult life but I had lost the ability to speak it fluently,” he says. With the help of the late Ida Stack, his first teacher, and Szyfra Braitberg and the late Gregor Braitberg, subsequent teachers, he not only learned to converse again, but became a student of Yiddish culture as well.

Edelstein, meanwhile, grew up in Philadelphia, the daughter of a rabbi who emigrated to the U.S. from Palestine, where Yiddish was spoken daily and Hebrew reserved for holy occasions until modern Hebrew became Israel’s official language. Edelstein says she has continued to speak Yiddish, as well as English, her entire life.

The two met as members of an informal group that used to congregate at Border’s Books in Creve Coeur on a weekly basis to practice Yiddish. By that time, Edelstein had volunteered to teach Yiddish to an adult day care group at the JCCA.

“It was a mixed group of Americans and Russians, and the hope was that Yiddish would be a common bond between them,” she says.

Soon after, Edelstein and Levine began teaching Yiddish at both Crown Center and Covenant House. The experience is more than just a relearning of language, their students say; it’s a way to make social connections as well.

“I’ve loved this language all my life, and often wished for a class of this sort,” says Bernstein, who joined the group a few years ago. “I never miss this–ever–it’s too much fun!”

Levels of fluency vary among classmates. Frieda Orenstein of St. Louis County, who attends regularly with her sister-in-law, Sue Orenstein, claims she couldn’t speak a word when she began coming nine years ago. Now she’s up to clauses and full sentences. For Holocaust survivor Abe Dobin, meanwhile, Yiddish is one of five languages he speaks fluently, in addition to Polish, German, Hebrew and English.

“Yiddish is my mame-loshn — my mother tongue,” he says. “It brings me joy to speak it with all these nice people.”

Though class members here exude enthusiasm for Yiddish, they are part of a dwindling group of speakers worldwide. A fusion of German dialects with Hebrew, Aramaic, Slavic and even Romance languages, Yiddish originated in the Ashkenazi Jewish culture of 10th Century Rhineland, eventually spreading to Central and Eastern Europe. At its height, prior to World War II, an estimated 11 to 13 million people were native speakers. Today, due to both the Holocaust and assimilation, less than 2 million speakers are believed to remain–with the majority in Israel and the United States, although significant populations also exist in Russia, Canada, Belgium, Britain and Moldova.

Still, signs of a small revival are evident. Many Hasidic communities continue to use Yiddish as their vernacular language. Universities, from Brandeis and Columbia to Stanford and Indiana University at Bloomington, now offer Yiddish programs, and interest in klezmer music and Yiddish theater is growing. The National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., houses 1 million rescued volumes, and offers 11,000 titles online through its Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library. Even Forverts, the Yiddish edition of the Forward, once one of seven Yiddish daily newspapers in New York City, now offers a weekly online edition.

That’s because, as Levine is quick to point out, Yiddish represents more than just a language–it was a way of life. To emphasize that belief, after he drills his students on translating phrases from English to Yiddish and vice versa, he and Edelstein end class with a tradition of reading from “A Bintel Brief,” a book that reprints 60 years of “Dear Abby”-type letters from the Lower East Side to the Forverts.

This particular week, the letter concerns a new immigrant, a young man who has left his blind father and stepmother in Russia to come to New York to seek his fortune. So far he has found only a temporary job — enough ($8!) to pay for rent, food and clothing, with a few dollars left to spare. He is wondering whether to save that money for a rainy day or send it to his father, as he promised before he left home.

As Edelstein reads the letter in Yiddish, class members debate the response. He should keep the money in case he can’t find work again soon, says one. Another thinks he should split the savings, sending a dollar to Russia and keeping a dollar for emergency purposes.

Much to their surprise, the editor of the Forverts advises the young man to send the money to his father.

Isn’t that, after all, the very definition of a mensch?

If you’re familiar with words like chutzpah, kibitz, macher and yenta, then you already know more Yiddish than you realize.

If you’d like to learn even more, try one of the following Yiddish classes. All are free and newcomers are welcome:

* Brentmoor Retirement Community, 8600 Delmar Boulevard, 2 p.m.-3 p.m. Fridays, every other week

* Gladys & Henry Crown Center, 8350 Delcrest Drive, 1:30 p.m.-2:30 p.m. Wednesdays, every other week

* Covenant House, 19 Millstone Campus Drive, 7 p.m.- 8:30 p.m. every Monday

For more information, call David Levine at (314) 432-4373 or Thelma Edelstein at (314) 991-4310.