Generations connect through Yiddish

Mia Kweskin is pictured with both of her grandmothers in 2013.

By Mia Kweskin

In times of joy and despair, my family and I cling to the Yiddish language. It kvetches and it kvells in a way no other language can. In my family, Yiddish is not just a series of words from a dying language that we throw into conversation. It transforms our vocabulary. It saturates our communication. It connects generations. And it enriches how we share emotions and experiences with one another. 

Whereas Hebrew is the loshn-koydesh, or holy tongue, Yiddish is the mame-loshn, or mother tongue. Hebrew acted as the language of the synagogue, while Yiddish flourished as the language of the home passed down from generation to generation by the Jewish mother. Some scholars have called the foundation of Yiddish sexist for keeping women, who were not allowed to study Hebrew, in the home. But my Yiddish identity and community are rooted in two strong female figures. In my mishpacha, Yiddish could be called bubbe-loshn—grandmother tongue.

An old VCR tape lies in the depths of my childhood home preserving the moment I was named Mia Michelle. Framed off center, my mother rests on a hospital bed cradling a seven-pound, 11-ounce version of me. 

“What a shayna punim!” Granny Shirley flashes a smile of perfectly straight teeth and wrinkled dimples towards the camera. 

“Aww, my Amy-leh,” Papa says. “She looks just like you.” Papa’s brown eyes grow watery as he looks down at his youngest daughter and granddaughter. Papa had called my mom Amy-leh for as long as she could remember. He combined her name Amy with bubbelah as a way to say darling or sweetheart. But when bubbelah refers to a baby girl, it also carries the expectation that she will have children and grandchildren of her own—that the mishpacha will grow. Papa gently rubs my newborn head and places his other hand like a bear’s paw on Grandma Bert’s shoulder. She gives one of those subtle grins I would come to know her by. 

“Does she have a name?” A chorus of mishpacha chimes in. “Jay, what do you think, Mia Elizabeth or Mia Michelle?” Dad’s voice rings out from behind the video camera. “Mia Michelle!” “Oh how beautiful!” The hospital room, now filled with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, kvells.

Five years later, my Papa died of a sudden heart attack. My paternal grandfather, Zeyda Chick,had died years before I was born. So I grew up without my grandfathers, but instead with two independent and perseverant grandmothers who immersed me in the exaggerated exclamations of the Yiddish language.

Both of my grandmas were class act kibitzers. Beyond the advice about how to be a mensch that spilled uncontrollably from their lips, my grandmothers showed us that a kibitzer is a storyteller.

Granny Shirley would start every conversation with, “Nu?” Even the little nudge of “nu?” encouraged me to share my stories. Our family stays connected through the stories that circulate between us. Sometimes it’s simply a story about a delicious blintz or bagel. Other times, we imbue our complaints and aches with Yiddish vocabulary, “I hate to kvetch, but I’ve been schlepping around all day at school and I feel like I’m going to plotz!” The biting sounds of kvetching or plotzing or schlepping infuse even the most trying days with a loving ounce of humor.

The Yiddish language itself is laced with stories. Its history spans from 13th-century Spain’s walled juderías through the atrocities of the Holocaust. The language drips with enough sentiment to carry on such a traumatic history. It allows us to express our stories with a positive and amusing outlook on what has been a heartbreaking past. 

While kibitzing with my mom, my brother and Grandma Bert years ago, Grandma Bert pointed to a wedding band loosely wrapped around her finger behind her own engagement and wedding rings. “This one was my mother’s.” She turned the ring around with her thumb revealing three tiny pits in the gold band. “Before I was born, after the first war, my mother traded the three diamonds on her ring to get my three older brothers into the United States.” 

My brother and I stared in amazement at the ring, just old enough to understand the meaning behind her story. A tear rolled down my mom’s cheek. In all her life, she had never before heard this story. Grandma Bert closed her eyes and pursed her lips, “It took a lot of chutzpah.”  

Last year, my grandmas passed away within five months of each other. Since losing them, I have found myself holding tight to the Yiddish language. I believe the beauty my grandmothers helped me discover in language influenced the pleasure I find in words and sounds. In my writing, I strive to find the words that best convey my purpose. In Yiddish, everyday words drip with meaning. Perhaps these oozing words inspired my passion for writing. And perhaps the kibitzers who shared this intricate language with me inspired my love of storytelling.

My first cousins now have young children who were blessed to have met their great grandmothers. Recently, my six-year-old cousin Kyla said to her four-year-old sister Liv, who had just spilled a plate full of peas, “Liv, oy!” I felt the spirit of my grandmothers echo through the generations. At age 6, Kyla has already relished in the beauty of our bubbe-loshn and developed a love for language and stories. She tells just about everyone she meets that she wants to be a writer.