In honor of Yiddish grandmothers, lets save their language

My Russian Jewish grandmother, who spoke Yiddish, affectionately called me Joanne-ala. In return, I took to calling her Gramechka, a name I made up because I thought it sounded, well, Yiddish. These were our own special just-between-us names, names that accented our close relationship and made us smile and laugh.

“Ah, Joanne-ala,” she’d coo when I called from college to fill her in on my life. I’d tell her about my journalism classes, the New England seasons, who I was dating.

“And, no, he’s not Jewish, Gramechka,” I’d often have to explain.

“But he’s a nice boy?” she’d ask.

Gramechka, like Jewish grandmothers everywhere, only wanted the best for her granddaughter. But I also think she wanted something more, something that only now, since I’ve done some looking back, I’ve begun to see.

Yiddish was not a language my grandmother passed on to her children, my father and aunt who spent their childhoods in Paris and Buenos Aires. There was little room for it with Russian, French and Spanish all competing for attention in the home.

But I think my grandmother would have loved it if I had learned this language from her early life, and of the beloved books on her bedside table. She would be surprised and pleased with the Yiddish revival today. Here, on Northern California non-shtetl soil, I notice so much Yiddish around me, from fridge magnets and flashcards to conferences and clubs. There’s even Yiddish 101 offered at Cal.

I don’t remember much Yiddish in the world outside my grandmother’s bedroom. I’m glad, though, to see it now.

While visiting her during college break, we’d lie across the bed, the bedspread barely visible under a sea of books and papers of typed poetry, much of it her own, and pieces she translated from Yiddish.

“How you say this?” she’d ask. “The word — it means inside the heart, part of you?”

“Soul?” I’d throw out.

“Ah, yes,” and she’d continue the poem, this one by Haim Nahman Bialik, and she made me feel like I was translating Yiddish, even though I didn’t know a word. She’d read aloud the poems in their native tongue; I’d hear the cadence and rhythm, and because she had translated it for me, it was as if I understood Yiddish, too.

She’d often talk about translations and their difficulty, how Yiddish words might have more than one meaning. Well into her 90s, my grandmother took a bus to her local JCC, just outside of Washington, D.C., once a week to read Yiddish poetry to the seniors. She taught them about Bialik, who wrote about the pogroms in Kishinev, the town of my grandmother’s childhood.

She told me stories, and, thankfully, even wrote a few of them down, about the pogroms she witnessed, about family separation and moving more times than she wanted to remember. These stories will be passed down, when my daughter is old enough to hear them, and maybe one day she’ll discover Bialik, or even take a course in Yiddish.

I think my grandmother might have found it reassuring that now anyone in the world can look up “oy” in the English dictionary. Though I use this word with reckless abandon, I’m not so comfortable sprinkling other Yiddishisms into my everyday language. Sure, I can shlep my (store-bought) rugelach to a party to nosh and shmooze, but, really, I don’t know my tsuris from my tuchus (and I had to look every one of them up to see how they were spelled).

So in order to gain more Yiddish confidence, and to be able to pass some of it on — since my grandmother’s not here to do it herself — I started by purchasing several children’s books, which my daughter and I read together. I consult the glossaries often and wish I had a pronunciation coach nearby.

I’ve recently begun calling my daughter Bubbala and she likes this, even eggs me on if I haven’t used it for awhile. “You’re not going to call me that booble name, are you?” she’ll say.

“You mean … Bubbala?” I ask, in my best Yiddish grandmother impression. She grins.

It’s one word, but it’s Yiddish. Gramechka would be so proud.

Joanne Catz Hartman lives and writes in Oakland. She can be reached at [email protected].