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A Broken Yiddish, a Better World: Activism as Inheritance

Molly Jackson
May 31, 2015

Part 2: Growing Up in Yiddishkayt

by Molly Jackson

To read Part One, click here. To read Part Three, click here.

2004_WkmCrclChorBooklinePAULINE AND I sit cross-legged, both of our less-than-statuesque frames folded comfortably onto benches in this bank-turned-café. We are literally in a vault, surrounded by a hundred safety deposit boxes. Their former secrets are presumably gone, and this little cavern has been reduced to the most novel seating in a Somerville coffee shop.

We are laughing over our own foibles as interviewers, and the surprises that come when the tables are turned. “Apparently I’m bubbly,” Pauli says, and mild shock passes over her face; she sounds as though she is tentatively trying the word on to see if it fits any better. Pauli is reflecting on the oddness of watching herself on film, listening to an interview she gave for the Yiddish Book Center’s (YBC) oral history project. I can only meet her eyes with incredulity: it took a filmed interview to realize that? Laughter, words upon words, storytelling — I cannot separate these traits from my image of Pauline, any more than her uniform of sneakers and jeans — smartened up, on teaching days, with a V-neck sweater.

During her time as a fellow at the Yiddish Book Center, one of her jobs was to close oral history interviews by asking participants for their favorite Yiddish words. Fearing that the question “trivialized Yiddish,” she tweaked it just slightly, asking for their favorite word, phrase, or song — no accident, considering how powerfully music connects Pauli and her parents to their Eastern European Jewish heritage.

I ask her for her own favorite. After quick debate with herself, she decides, “I’m going to tell you the phrase that is the reason I speak Yiddish: ‘Beser a tsebrokhene yidish vi keyn yidish.’ ‘Better a broken Yiddish than no Yiddish.’” It is a phrase that changed Pauli’s life, and not hers alone. After all, how does the daughter of two secular, English-speaking Jews from New York City wind up a near-fluent speaker of a language now almost entirely restricted to Orthodox communities?

0-1Her parents, Michael Katz and Linda Gritz, present a piece of the story in a short film made by the Yiddish Book Center. The editor seamlessly stitched together their separately-taped memories, which seems apt for their marriage: Both are thoughtful, casual, and charismatic; the back- and-forth effect feels entirely natural. Although Linda initially seems more self-conscious in front of the camera, both of them communicate their passion and kindness with eyes, tone, and smile as much as words. Mike wears a light blue t-shirt emblazoned with a Yiddish joke, and sports a scruffy full gray beard and usually grinning eyes. Linda, in contrast, is graceful in a loose blue tunic, whose lines and flows match those of her long, dark hair. Like her daughter, she dots her speech with Yiddish, occasionally stopping to sing bits of song as she processes her thoughts. Watching her, I sense that beside her slight, possibly uncharacteristic shyness, she is mindful of the interviewer’s own; she smiles calmly but encouragingly as she waits for questions.

Enrolled in next-door classes at the Bronx High School of Science, Linda hardly noticed when her friend’s friend Michael took a seat next to her for a joint movie screening: something not terribly riveting, she thinks, possibly social studies. Only after his class had filed out did she realize, with alarm, that she could not leave her chair: using her 1970s chain belt, someone had literally chained her in the seat. “I figured out exactly what had happened,” she says, sagely shaking a finger. “Even though I didn’t know Mike well, I knew him well enough to be able to say (raises voice), ‘Rose, get your friend Mike back in here and unlock this chair!” She throws her head back in laughter.

Both were raised in New York, the children of first- and second-generation Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe; their households were decidedly unreligious. Reflecting on what led her parents to their secular Jewish identities, Linda shares a story of her grandfather. In Poland, he had been a pious follower of the town’s rebbe, who asked him to perform a marriage ceremony under a “black khupe” (wedding canopy). The groom had died before the official wedding, and, although his fiancée promised they had not yet consummated the relationship, the rebbe insisted that she still be ‘married’ in order to legitimize any possible offspring. Linda’s grandfather protested, vouching for the girl’s honesty, to no avail. After finally obeying, he returned home and cut off his payes, his Orthodox sidelocks — thinking, Linda imagines, “This is not what I thought this would be about.” It was the end of his days as a disciple.

History may have played a role in Linda's family's New World identities, as well. Her mother’s mother was the only one of her family to immigrate to the United States before the Holocaust, and the only survivor. Linda recalls that her grandmother “burned all the letters, all the pictures,” out of grief, and rarely spoke of Poland afterwards. The shadow of the Shoah darkens many of Pauline’s family’s stories: Linda’s father, for instance, left Warsaw only two years before the Nazi invasion.

ejud_0002_0009_0_img0859As a founder of A Besere Velt, the Boston Workmen's Circle's Yiddish chorus, Linda takes special, bittersweet pride in their commemorative performance for the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. She recalls visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, and being drawn to a picture of the Warsaw Ghetto Children’s Chorus. It is a haunting photograph: the schoolroom they appear to stand in is infused with light; a hand-painted palm tree and soaring bird decorate the wall; skinny bodies and shaved heads belie the sunniness. Linda’s eye landed on a singer who resembled her father, and she was overcome by the knowledge that he would have been among them had he stayed just two years more. Standing before the Ghetto’s cobblestones, now in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Linda “felt like I should kiss these. Not being a religious person, sacred isn’t a word I use lightly, but that was a sacred place for me.”

But her father did make it to America, and embraced it with open arms: “This is for me!” Linda whispers with awe and excitement, trying to see the Statue of Liberty through her father’s eyes. Like most immigrants in Pauline’s family, he quickly shed his mother tongue, his mameloshn, in favor of English. In fact, when Linda and Mike decided to raise their own children in Yiddish, her father was horrified, thinking it a step backwards. After the hard work of assimilation, says Linda, “now his grandchildren were going to have an accent?”

Throughout their childhoods, Linda and Mike received only a smattering of Yiddish. Although they certainly could not speak it fluently — and claim that they still cannot — singing was a different matter; in one of their earlier memories of each other, they harmonized Yiddish folk songs for hours. As a newly married couple in Boston, however, something drew them back to the language. Although music was a motive, in their daughter’s view they “wanted to know what [they] were singing,” and their goals quickly moved beyond song. After exhausting the formal Yiddish classes around them, they decided to take matters into their own hands and start a vinkl, or conversation group, to improve their fluency. Then Pauline entered the picture.

“We had no intention of speaking our lousy Yiddish to the kids,” Linda states. But one vinkl friend, in particular, had different ideas for their offspring. Throughout her pregnancy, Linda was “hounded,” month after month, by his adamant position that “‘better a broken Yiddish than no Yiddish.’ It was a hard argument to argue against.”

THUS BEGAN an ongoing adventure: How to raise their child in a language they themselves do not speak fluently, and few do? Describing her home, the first things that jump to Pauli’s mind are books. They are a family of readers: Where would they find Yiddish stories for children? Although the success of the Yiddish experiment was up in the air, the importance of the Katz-Gritz family’s growing circle of progressive Jewish friends in the their children’s lives was never in doubt. As Pauline’s day of birth has been described to her,

It happens that I was born on a Sunday, and this group would meet on Monday, and apparently all Monday [my parents] were getting calls from people, and all the men would call and ask if they were still having vinkl, and my parents would say yes. And all the women would call and ask if we’re having vinkl and is it with or without a baby? So apparently my mom would answer the door with her one-day-old in her hand, then got a little tired and went to sleep and then apparently I stayed and hung out with all the Yiddish speakers.

Ironically, Pauline’s decidedly unreligious parents wound up sending her to a preschool in their neighborhood called “Alef Bet.” As its name suggests, it was “firmly Jewish,” yet the first place where Pauline really needed English. As she and her younger brother Ben would happily bounce in the car, singing the prayers they’d learned at the preschool shabes service, her father would “grip the steering wheel” as her mother tried to reassure him: “They just think they’re songs! It’s okay! They just think they’re songs!”

It was an early lesson in difference, but also in mutual respect. One fall, as the High Holidays approached, the Alef Bet rabbi struck up conversation with Mike. They’d often spoken before, sometimes in Yiddish, but something specific was on the rabbi’s mind. “So, what are your plans for the holidays?” he finally asked. They had plans, but not religious ones. “Do you pray?” the rabbi continued. Mike said no. After a pause, the rabbi looked at him: “It’s okay. I know you’re Jewish.”

Repeating the rabbi’s answer, Mike is audibly moved: “What a mentsh. What a true mentsh! He knew that we believed in who we were. If we chose to be the kind of Jews we were, that was enough. That was one of those moments.” He sighs deeply.

Apart from Alef Bet, Somerville had few Jewish residents, yet Pauline often felt like just one more bilingual, bicultural kid among her peers, many of whom were recent immigrants. As time went on, her parents also connected with other Yiddish-speaking, nonreligious families, and found resources like summer camps and music weeks to help her and Ben realize they weren’t alone.

Pauline’s unusual Yiddish upbringing was one of community and optimism, albeit with the occasional frustration. After all, as she characterizes it, Yiddish is a “hopeful” language:

What has Yiddish given me? The sense of who I am and what my culture is in terms of this is the language of social justice and of the labor movement... It was a time of lots and lots of people trying to rebuild their world, and Jews were a huge part of that, and Yiddish was the language they were doing it in, and fighting in, and having ridiculous grudge matches in.

But part of Yiddish’s worth comes from pain, as well. Pauline hums a few bars of a favorite song and tries to translate: “There’s this little house, and there’s a little fire burning in the little house, and the rabbi is teaching the children the alef-beys,” the alphabet. As the final verses of “Oyfn Pripetchik” (“On the Hearth”) foretell: When you grow older, children, you will understand by yourselves/How many tears lie in these letters, and how much lament./When you, children, will bear the Exile, and will be exhausted,/May you derive strength from these letters. Look in at them.

I.L. PERETZ (1852-1915) was a giant of Yiddish literature and history, “worth two Dostoevskys. Maybe three,” one scholar of Russian and Yiddish says mischievously. Yet even Peretz said, “‘It is not enough to speak Yiddish... You must have something to say!’”

Michael Katz makes the same point:

It would be more surprising to speak Yiddish with our kids if it were merely a question of nostalgia, that we don’t want the language to go away. Which we don’t! But it’s also a question of moral compass: where do you start from? Where do your ideals come from? It was a necessary choice.

What, then, is so powerful about yidishkayt — so powerful that Pauline also plans to raise her children in the language? Although her parents fought an upward, uncharted battle creating a secular Yiddish community in Boston, it would be easy for her, as an adult, to either reject the inconveniences of her unconventional upbringing or automatically, uncritically follow their example. But, she acknowledges, “I obviously did make a choice somewhere.”

The Jewish community, as a whole, has also made choices. Yiddish, once the home language of a majority of Jews, was nearly annihilated by the Holocaust. Massive Jewish immigration to the United States, and pressure to assimilate to mainstream culture, eventually demolished what had once been a vibrant Yiddish subculture centered in New York City. The State of Israel’s decision to use Hebrew, a language that had been used only for prayer and ritual for over a millennium, rather than the language of most Israeli immigrants’ ancestors, was a pivotal moment in the history of Jewish identity. As Pauline interprets it, “There’s an entire narrative of Yiddish as the language of the ghetto. Yiddish as the language of anti-Semitism and oppression. Hebrew is the language of when we were kings. That was the narrative told and that was the narrative bought.”

Today, Yiddish's use is limited to Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities, and much smaller but complex, diverse pockets of other Yiddishists like Pauline and her parents. Yiddish speaks to them as the language of progress and hope, the language of Jews dedicated to tikkun olam, repair of the world, through deeds that range from fighting pogroms in the early 1800s to criticizing Israel’s human rights abuses today.

To be continued. To see Linda Gritz talking about Jewish observance in her secular Jewish home, look below.

Molly Jackson studies education and religion at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Before returning to her adopted home of Massachusetts, she taught literature and composition in Hong Kong for several years.