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Facts & Arguments

By learning Yiddish, I can access a part of my heritage

Yiddish today is a way into the past, but also a playground for creating new forms of cultural expression

Facts & Arguments is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

Wandering along a small street off Second Avenue in Manhattan, I came across a sandwich board sign that read: "Come inside and see what we've got!" I accepted the invitation. Inside, stood two young women, a brunette and a blonde, both with bangs, working behind a glass case filled with carefully iced cupcakes.

"Where are you from?" asked the brunette shop owner.

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"Toronto."

"Cool!" they cooed in unison.

"What are you doing in the City?" the blonde followed up.

"Studying Yiddish!"

"Wow. Cool!" They cooed again.

"But isn't Yiddish a dying language?" asked the brunette.

I smiled at the irony of this question coming from a woman who had just opened a cupcake shop, long after the cupcake trend had gone stale.

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Yiddish lives. Not on the scale it once did – at its height, before the Holocaust, the mother tongue (or mameloshen, in Yiddish) of more than 10 million Jews, mostly in Eastern European shtetls. Yiddish today is a way into the past, a time machine offering insight into the mindsets and concerns of people in pre-Holocaust Jewish communities. Yiddish is also a playground for creating new forms of cultural expression.

I came to this conclusion after studying Yiddish in New York for six weeks this summer, following my graduation from law school.

I wasn't alone – about 50 others from around the world participated in the summer program at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York.

Why Yiddish? My desire to learn it is in part about finding my voice, one manifestation of a twentysomething looking to carve out her space in the world. Yiddish lets me articulate certain thoughts in a way that English does not.

For example, I find Yiddish vocabulary and syntax better suited to how I feel. I like to refer to my friends and family by the diminutive forms of their names because it is warmer, more tender. My friend from Yiddish class is much more Rokhele than Rachel; my sister is Sorele, not just Sarah.

Irma Kniivila/for The Globe and Mail

Yiddish has not only the diminutive, but also the imminutive, an even smaller, more affectionate, way of referring to someone or something. A girl is a maydl in the diminutive or a maydele in the immunitive. We learned this in one of our first grammar lessons, a signal that learning the close, caring ways of referring to people and things is a foundational part of Yiddish.

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In our first language class, we learned common responses to "how are you?" The answers include: "I have no news" (nishto keyn nayes), and "It's better you shouldn't ask" (iz beser nisht fregn). My classmate Michelle commented: "This is the language I've been looking for. In English I'm expected to answer 'fine.' But I'm not fine. Fine is a useless answer. Yiddish has the answers I feel."

By learning my grandparents' language, I can access a deeper part of me. Knowing facts about the shtetls where they grew up or seeing a family tree does not tell me about how my family for generations lived and kvetched, how they worried about one another (the evil eye shouldn't be with you, then spitting three times – keyn eyn hora pfft pfft pfft) and how they said goodnight to one another (sleep well and wake up refreshed in the morning – shlof gezunt un shtey oyf gezunter frish). But Yiddish is not spoken in Eastern European shtetls any more. Those shtetls no longer exist.

Yiddish today looks and sounds different. My classmates are a microcosm of the ways Yiddish lives.

Some students learn Yiddish to uncover European Jewish history. My classmate Milena is a tour guide and genealogist in Lodz, Poland, who helps Jewish families uncover their histories and leads volunteers to restore Jewish cemeteries. She is learning Yiddish to work with historical documents.

Other students are creating art and culture in Yiddish. Meng, a student from China, wrote and performed a Yiddish and Mandarin song at the closing ceremony of the summer program. Chloe, a master's student in Boston, is exploring the relationship between Yiddishkeit and queer culture – both diasporic, cosmopolitan and alternative communities.

Outside our classroom, Yiddish lives as a spoken language in New York, most commonly in Hasidic communities. A four-year-old girl from a Hasidic family approached me in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. In the middle of our conversation about her favourite food (latkes with cheese), she exclaimed, "Du redst azoy funny!" (You speak so funny!).

Our conversation mirrored the divide, and sometimes tension, between Yiddish in religious and secular worlds. This gap was particularly visible to me during the weekend I spent on Yiddish Farm in Goshen, N.Y. The husband and wife who run the farm are Hasidic, while the students who come for the Yiddish immersion program range from orthodox to atheist. But they all speak a rapid-fire Yiddish inflected with an American accent.

This is not my grandparents' Yiddish. It is the bones of their language in a new environment, a new dimension of a rich tradition. Like my take on my Bubby's chicken soup, it is not for purists, but it is warm, comforting and a hell of a lot more nourishing than a cupcake – no offence to the cupcake ladies.

Leanna Katz lives in Vancouver.

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