Yiddish groups help keep language alive in St. Louis

Will Soll teaches a Yiddish version of a Passover song at a Shaare Emeth Yiddish Club meeting.

BY BILL MOTCHAN, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

You say you have shpilkes when Cardinals manager Mike Matheny calls the bullpen for a relief pitcher? Had a little too much wine and you’re feeling shikker? That’s a shondeh! But don’t worry, bubbe, listen to my mayse.

Please pardon me if I’m using a bit more Yiddish these days. I spent March investigating the St. Louis Yiddish scene, where I heard some funny jokes, learned some songs and even a little practical Yiddish, like the fir kashes. That’s not a pine-scented high-fiber cereal, it’s the four questions.

Yiddish dates back to the 10th century. It evolved and grew until, by the early part of the 20th century, nearly 11 million people worldwide spoke the language. The Holocaust drastically cut that number and, today, an estimated 3 million people speak Yiddish. 

As of 2011, there were an estimated 154,763 Yiddish speakers in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey on language use. That represented a drop of 4,000 from a similar study in 2007.

The irony is that many Americans frequently use the English version of Yiddish words. Chutzpah, kibitz, maven, nosh, schmooze and yenta are common expressions. These, and many more, can all be found in “The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary.”

People who want to learn more about Yiddish fall into several categories. Some heard their parents or grandparents speaking Yiddish when they were growing up, and they want to get back in touch with those pleasant memories. Others are interested in the cultural and religious aspects of the language. There are also those who just enjoy the unique music and humor of Yiddish. I spoke with several people who fit one of these profiles, all of whom are members of the two St. Louis Yiddish groups.

If you fall into any of those groups, the Crown Center Yiddish Group and the Shaare Emeth Yiddish Club offer fun learning experiences. The Crown Center Yiddish Group has been meeting for more than 20 years. The group’s leader is Rabbi Neal Rose, who is also a staff chaplain at Jewish Family & Children’s Service. Rose’s Yiddish education began at age 5 in New York. 

“I spent a lot of time in the Chabad community in Brooklyn in the early ’60s, and I could understand the sermons and discourses of the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson because I understood the Yiddish,” Rose said. “I went on to do research, and I wrote my doctoral dissertation in Yiddish.”

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Gail Kushner, a Crown Center resident, also grew up in Brooklyn. Her mother immigrated to the United States when she was 9 years old.  

“The only Yiddish I heard growing up was when my mother was talking to my bubbe. She had no English skills at all, nor did my zayde,” Kushner said. “It was only since living here that I learned that there was a Yiddish class and I was interested in learning.”Irene Belsky spoke Yiddish before English “because of my grandparents.” 

“My zayde was a scholar, a scribe, and a hazzan at shul,” she said. “He was a little guy, but he could blow the shofar and you could hear it two blocks away. This is what I grew up with. The older I get, the more I speak Yiddish.”

Harvey Friedman, a retired professor of biology at Washington University, also heard a lot of Yiddish growing up in New York City. He remembers listening to the Yiddish radio station WEVD (the station’s call letters stood for the name of Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs). Friedman’s parents also spoke Yiddish. 

“I remember one time my dad looked into my messy room and he said, ‘Oy, a khurbn.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ and he replied, ‘The destruction of the temple,’ ” Friedman said.

Bill Long, a musician (organ, piano and harpsichord) and retired optometrist, is Rose’s backup leader at Crown Center. Long joined the group about five years ago when he was accompanying a singer for a gig. Long, a Presbyterian, found the Crown Center Yiddish group in the Jewish Light’s community events calendar.

“They asked me what shul I went to,” he said of his first meeting. “I didn’t tell them I wasn’t Jewish, but once they figured it out they were still nice to me. Also, my son married a Jewish girl, so this seemed like an opportunity to learn something about Yiddishkeit and what my grandson and granddaughter were born into, because it’s not the same culture I was born into.”

At 24, Ezra Rabinsky is one of the youngest Yiddish speakers I found in St. Louis. Rabinsky is the meal service coordinator at Crown Center. He has a degree in linguistics and speaks Hebrew and Arabic as well. He said that for anyone interested in Yiddish, “It’s pretty easy to learn but difficult to master because it’s incredibly idiomatic.”

Consider the familiar phrase hakn a tshaynik. When we hear it, it’s understood that the person is talking about being annoyed. But the literal translation is “to knock a teapot.” 

The word tsimmes also has a double meaning: either a stew or a  ruckus. 

Yiddish itself is a stew of languages. It is a combination of German dialects mixed in with Hebrew, Aramaic and some Slavic. Learning Yiddish takes some effort, but the members of St. Louis’ two Yiddish groups are happy to introduce newcomers to the nuances of the language. 

The Shaare Emeth Yiddish Club is similar to the Crown Center group in size and vibe. The attendees have a range of fluency, from expert level to knowing just a few words and phrases. The latter describes the group’s facilitator, Michael Bobroff.

“I don’t read Hebrew, I can’t read Yiddish, but I’ve always had an interest, and my grandmother spoke Yiddish when I was a kid, when she spoke to my parents and didn’t want me to understand what they were saying,” Bobroff said. “So 10 years ago, I called the Federation to check on Yiddish classes available, and then I saw in the Shaare Emeth bulletin they were starting a Yiddish club in May of 2013.”

The club was created by Szyfra Braitberg, a Holocaust survivor. She still attends most meetings. In March, the other members sang happy birthday — in Yiddish —‚ to Braitberg, who had just turned 99. She thanked the group for their friendship and addressed them in Yiddish, saying: 

“I’m deep in my years. I think back all those years ago and I can’t believe the things I’ve seen that were so tragic and how fortunate I am today to be surrounded by friends.”

Every month has a theme, and for this meeting, Dr. Ethan Schuman led the meeting. Schuman, a dentist, said it’s because “I just love the language. There’s something special about it because it’s the language of our forefathers. Everybody here has a good time. I always like to teach them a song.”

Schuman and fellow member Will Soll taught us Passover songs, including the Yiddish version of Dayenu. Soll is a noteworthy St. Louis musician, adept at guitar, mandolin and banjo. He is such a fan of Yiddish that he traveled to Vilnius, Lithuania, to study it at the Yiddish Institute.

One unusual similarity of the Crown Center and Shaare Emeth Yiddish groups is that each has a fluent non-Jewish member. At Shaare Emeth, it’s Dick Lodge who’s been attending meetings for several years and refers to himself as the “token goy.” His introduction to Yiddish came many years earlier.

“When I was in the Air Force, I had a Jewish roommate, and his mother used to send him clippings from The Forward,”Lodge said. “He could speak Yiddish and I couldn’t, and that fascinated me, so we got a book and I learned Yiddish. I sent a handwritten letter in Yiddish to The Forward, and I bought him a subscription and had it sent to his APO address. Unbeknownst to either one of us, they printed my letter on the front page with the headline ‘Christian Officer, Taught Yiddish By A Friend Now In Vietnam, Writes Letter To Forward.’

“I was still living in Arkansas, and I don’t think there was a newsstand in the state that carried The Forward. My friend Stu started getting correspondence from people. That’s how he found out that they printed my letter. I still remember one letter he got from a single girl who tried self-matchmaking. It started out: ‘My grandmother said I should write to you. I’m 5 feet 4 inches with red hair, Orthodox but not fanatic about it …’ ”