American Soap Operas Taught Me Yiddish
The language of soap operas is universal: vexing vixens, meddling matriachs and busy men with even busier zippers. When All My Children joined numerous cancelled soaps with its final episode on September 23, it prompted me to reflect on how the voices gone silent did more than entertain; they helped teach me Yiddish.
Like monarchies before a revolution, the kingdoms of daytime television ruled when coffee klatches and occasional babysitters had yet to be overthrown by power lunches and 24/7 nannies.
The demise of soaps draws the curtain on not just a fading era of pre-feminist entertainment, but what women now consider appropriate to do with their days, or at least their afternoons. Which brings me to my maternal grandmother, a woman who survived an immigrant’s ocean trek, a working mother who raised three sets of twins in the Depression.
She came late to soaps; actually, it was just one, As The World Turns, whose final spin last in September 2010 ended 54 years on network television.
Di mayse (the story) bubbie called the shlepped-out story that got even more shlepped out when CBS doubled the running time to an hour. Its timeslot shared the rule of Shabbos when the phone rang: let it ring (those in the know knew to avoid calling). Indeed, the show, and reading the Forverts, seemed the rare occasions bubbie was not on her feet or with a pot in hand.
“Kum, di mayse heybt zikh on” (come, the story is starting), she’d announce with Swiss-watch accuracy, a signal for our little threesome (my grandfather, strictly a Gunsmoke/Mannix man, joined us in companionable silence) to head for the living room and the tsuris of the Hughes family in fictional Oakdale, Illinois.
Among plotlines with more twists than a challah, I absorbed the mamaloshen and a few choice lessons in what passed for moral turpitude in the 1960s. Though delivered in her customary Yiddish, the commentary was less a Berlitz lesson than an opportunity to sauce my vocabulary with shvanger (pregnant), paskudnyak (scoundrel) and other such exotica that still manage to sound naughty. I hit paydirt when a hysterectomy yielded the codeword for female medical tsuris below the waist: vaybersh zakh (women’s things). Whether that one came from bubbie I can’t recall, but it’s still in the vernacular today.
The world kept turning for bubbie long after I left for college and stopped watching the show. It was no longer fun, or educational, without her.
But always a sucker for a good story, and for want of company while this newlywed cooked for Shabbos, I settled on the now-defunct Another World. Occasionally, I’d aim Yiddish bon mots at the screen, delighting in memories of Oakdale and my grandparents in their living room.
Should networks reconsider and commission a new soap, its name should evoke the Yiddishe spirit of some of the genre’s biggest fans: Better This World Than The Next One.
If they did, it wouldn’t surprise me if the ratings were out of this world.