When I was a boy of 7, 8 and 9, I would tag along with my father pretty much everywhere. He was, among other things, the “house” rabbi for his parent’s landsmanshaft, the Kolomear Friends Association. During the 1970s many of the original Kolomears were passing on and their children were burying them. My father was frequently asked to officiate at these funerals.
It was there I became familiar with a routine: Father would go into the receiving room and meet with the mourners and I would wait with more distant family and friends in the chapel. Here were men with names like Jack, Sid and Leon. Beefy and prosperous-looking, they drove up in their Buicks and had the scent of cologne. They wore gold chains, some of them. The women, dressed in pantsuits, had names like Bessie, Blanche or Rose. They lived on Long Island, but invariably had grown up in the Bronx as my father had.
I would be privy to their pre-funeral banter, conducted in whispers. I had lunch with Morris a few weeks ago. He was the picture of health! One doesn’t know from one day to the next what will be. They would all shake their heads in agreement.
After a short while, the bereaved would file in and father would start: “Our rabbis said: a man shtarbt nor far zayn froy.” A man dies only to his wife. One could begin to hear sniffles. And then father would go on: “Morris, der nifter, is geven a gute neshome.” Morris was a good soul. At that point the sniffles would cascade into a healthy stream of tears.
What was the power of a Yiddish word or two? Men and women were “hardened” by a certain American-ness — a materialism, success, money — and yet vulnerable, even hungry, for a Yiddish word, a phrase that could bring them to a state of pure emotion. Even as a boy of 7 years old, I could appreciate this.
It was this very same hunger for a soft Yiddish word that brought my wife and me to Yugntruf’s Yiddish Vokh, held this past week in Maryland. Here were men, women and children from all over the country, who had come for the same reason, to learn, teach and share Yiddish and Yiddishkayt. It was a rarefied opportunity to use words like shvim-baseyn (swimming pool) or veverke (squirrel), or to read the poetry of the Soviet Yiddish master, Leib Kvitko, or even to read Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in mame loshen.
The late, great Yiddish poet Avraham Sutzkever wrote that a poem has no birth date. It exists above and beyond time. It can hover for a lifetime or even for centuries, passed on by DNA or genetic material. Some outside experience; an agitation in the form of a twinkle, a smile, a tear, even a funeral perhaps, causes it to seed and be born,
For me Yiddish is a poem — a lifelong love-poem, an ode to my father and his world. In the beginning of my life it was a levaya that sparked this love. Now it is quite literally, the yugntruf — the call of youth — hearing the treasured and the familiar Yiddish spoken by new bodies, young and old.
Today I am a middle-aged Yiddish speaker, reborn.