This month, during the first yahrzeit of my father, Mordkhe Schaechter, of blessed memory, I recalled a story my father used to tell us about his paternal grandfather, Reb Itsye Mordkhe — a shokhet (slaughterer) who was not very popular among the butchers of the shtetl because whenever he rendered one of their animals treyf, the animal could be sold only to non-Jews and at a much lower price. One day, the chief butcher in the shtetl warned him: “Reb Itsye Mordkhe, if you tell me one more animal is treyf, I’ll break your neck.” This did not frighten my great-grandfather, who continued to follow the letter of the law. One day, after he once again declared an animal nonkosher, the chief butcher, a large, muscular man, waited for him on a side street, and when Reb Mordkhe passed him by, the butcher struck him so hard that he was knocked unconscious. Several months later he passed away.
I think the reason my father used to tell us this story was that it made an enormous impression on him; it taught him what it means to live for one’s principles. My father’s own life was very different from his grandfather’s. He didn’t live in a shtetl but in the big city of Czernowitz, Romania. In contrast to his grandfather, who received his education at yeshiva, my father was raised in a secular home and performed his studies at a cultural Jewish day school. Even though his own father, Khaim Binyomen, had gone to yeshiva, he, like many of his generation, had cast off the traditional lifestyle in favor of a more “enlightened” life. He became a Yiddishist, and in 1908, when Czernowitz’s first Yiddish-language conference took place, my grandfather set out from the shtetl on a pilgrimage, literally by foot, to prove his devotion to the Yiddish language and culture.
My father was very affected by his own father’s love of Yiddish. One day, when my father was 6 years old, he and my grandfather were sitting on a park bench. An old Jewish man sat down and asked my father, in German, “What’s your name, buberl?” My father turned to his father and asked, “A yid mit a vayser bord un redt daytsh?” (“A Jew with a white beard, and he speaks German?”)
Like this old Jew in the park, many Jews in Czernowitz, eager to acculturate, had already begun speaking German to each other — a phenomenon that baffled my father, who could not fathom why anybody would be ashamed of his own language and culture. He soon decided to follow in the footsteps of his father and do whatever he could to bring dignity to the Yiddish language. After the war, he received his doctorate in linguistics from the University of Vienna. He then came to America, where he joined a community of Yiddish-speaking children of immigrants — among them, my mother.
In the 1960s, only a handful of universities offered Yiddish, and it was taught as a dead language, like Latin. My father made a point of systematically speaking Yiddish with his students and faculty members, even outside the school setting. It was a struggle, because in those years, Jews, like all ethnic groups, were still striving to join the melting pot.
My father was not the only one who held on. I remember him taking me to a shtibl (small synagogue), on Dekalb Avenue in the Bronx, where the elderly Rabbi Twersky still gave his dvar Torah in Yiddish. Between the years 1962 and 1980, world-renowned Talmud scholar Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik (popularly known as the “Rav”) delivered an annual two-to-three hour lecture in Yiddish, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to the Rabbinical Council of America. In the February 24, 1961, issue of the Yiddish daily Der Tog, the Rav wrote a short piece explaining why he continued to give his talks in Yiddish:
“I am not a Yiddishist who believes that the language itself represents an absolute value. But I am a gemora-Jew and I know that kedusha (holiness) and absoluteness are not always identical. Jewish law stipulates that there are two kinds of kedusha: 1) gufey-kedusha (items that are inherently sanctified like a sefer Torah), and 2) tashmishey-kedusha (items that serve the sanctified items, like the cover for the sefer Torah). It ruled that if a fire breaks out on Shabbos, one needs to rescue not only the sefer Torah but also the sefer Torah cover that protects it. In the same way Yiddish as a language, even if it is not considered as gufey-kedusha, certainly belongs to the class of tashmishey-kedusha, which are also holy and which one must protect with all one’s strength.”
Although my father was not much of a synagogue-goer, when he did go he enjoyed hearing the Yiddish names of family members, after Jews were called up to the Torah. Throughout the years, my father encouraged his students to wear their Yiddish names proudly. He disapproved of those who dropped them altogether — changing Gitl to the Hebrew name Tova, for example — or who used only their English names. All four of us children were named after our late relatives, as is the Ashkenazic custom, but my father also took special care to maintain the traditional Ashkenazic pronunciation; so, on our birth certificates our names were recorded as Sureh-Rukhl, Dobrish-Gitl, Frimet-Eydl and Yosl-Binyumen. And of course, he made sure we spoke only Yiddish not just to him and my mother but also to one another. If he caught us speaking English, there was no television for a week. And because he was a linguist, he was constantly correcting our grammatical mistakes, to which we would often exclaim, “But Tati, you’re not even listening to what I’m saying!”
Years later, people asked me, “Didn’t you ever rebel against speaking Yiddish?” The answer is no. We may have rebelled in other ways (I remember, for example, defying my father by getting out of my dressy clothes after Sabbath lunch and hopping on the subway to meet my friends downtown), but never through Yiddish, perhaps because it would have been too difficult to do so. After all, we not only spoke Yiddish at home; we attended the Yiddish Sholem Aleichem School 21 every day after public school, and spent our summers in a Yiddish summer camp, so it was really all around us.
Judging from the hundreds of students, colleagues and well-wishers who streamed in daily during the shiva last year, one could clearly see the impact that my father had had on all our lives. From him, we learned that Yiddish is an integral part of being an Ashkenazic Jew, and that, especially after the Holocaust, all Jews who have Yiddish-speaking ancestors have a responsibility to learn the language and to speak it to the best of their ability. According to the well-known midrash, the Israelites in Egypt never lost their identity because they held on to their Jewish names and their Jewish language. My father’s midrash did the same.
Rukhl Schaechter is a staff writer and editor at the Forverts. This article is based on a talk she delivered last month, in commemoration of her father’s first yahrzeit, at Young Israel Ohab Zedek, in the Bronx.