My Yiddish, by Leonard Michaels

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Sep 18 15:58:06 UTC 2003

Forwarded from the Threepenny Review, Fall 2003

   My Yiddish
    Leonard Michaels

In Paris one morning in the Seventies, walking along rue Mahler, I saw a
group of old men in an argument, shouting and gesticulating. I wanted to
know what it was about, but my graduate-school French was good enough only
to read great writers, not good enough for an impassioned argument or even
conversation with the local grocer. But then, as I walked by the old men,
I felt a shock and a surge of exhilaration. I did understand them. My god,
I possessed the thing-spoken French! Just as suddenly, I crashed. The old
men, I realized, were shouting in Yiddish.

Like a half-remembered dream, the incident lingered. It seemed intensely
personal, yet impersonal. Meaning had come alive in me. I hadnt translated
what the old men said. I hadnt done anything. A light turned on. Where
nothing had been, there was something.

Philosophers used to talk about The Understanding as if it were a distinct
mental function. Today they talk about epistemology or cognitive science.
As for The Understanding, its acknowledged in IQ tests, the value of which
is subject to debate. Its also acknowledged in daily life in countless
informal ways. Youre on the same wave length with others or you are not.
The Paris incident, where I rediscovered The Understanding, made me wonder
if Descartess remark, I think, therefore I am, might be true in his case,
but not mine. I prefer to say, I am, therefore I think. And also,
therefore, I speak.

Until I was five, I spoke only Yiddish. It did much to permanently qualify
my thinking. Eventually I learned to speak English, then to imitate
thinking as it transpires among English speakers. To some extent, my
intuitions and my expression of thoughts remain basically Yiddish. I can
say only approximately how this is true. For example this joke:

The rabbi says, Whats green, hangs on the wall, and whistles?

The student says, I dont know.

The rabbi says, A herring.

The student says, Maybe a herring could be green and hang on the wall, but
it absolutely doesnt whistle.

The rabbi says, So it doesnt whistle.

The joke is inherent in Yiddish, not any other language. Its funny, and,
like a story by Kafka, it isnt funny. I confess that I dont know every
other language. Maybe there are such jokes in Russian or Chinese, but no
other language has a history like Yiddish which, for ten centuries, has
survived the dispersion and murder of its speakers.

As the excellent scholar and critic Benjamin Harshav points out, in The
Meaning of Yiddish, the language contains many words that dont mean
anythingnu, epes, tokeh, shoyn. These are fleeting interjections, rather
like sighs. They suggest, without meaning anything, so, really, well,
already. Other Yiddish words and phrases, noticed by Harshav, are
meaningful but defeat translation. Transparent and easy to understand,
however, is the way Yiddish serves speechbetween you and merather than the
requirements of consecutive logical discourse; that is, between the being
who goes by your name and who speaks to others objectively and
impersonally. For example, five times five is twenty-five, and it doesnt

Yiddish is probably at work in my written English. This moment, writing in
English, I wonder about the Yiddish undercurrent. If I listen, I can
almost hear it: This momenta stress followed by two neutral
syllablesintroduces a thought which hangs like a herring in the weary
droop of writing in English, and then comes the announcement, I wonder
about the Yiddish undercurrent. The sentence ends in a shrug. Maybe I hear
the Yiddish undercurrent, maybe I dont. The sentence could have been
written by anyone who knows English, but it probably would not have been
written by a well-bred Gentile. It has too much drama, and might even be
disturbing, like music in a restaurant or an elevator. The sentence
obliges you to abide in its staggered flow, as if what I mean were
inextricable from my feelings and required a lyrical note. There is a kind
of enforced intimacy with the reader. A Jewish kind, I suppose. In Sean
OCaseys lovelier prose you hear an Irish kind.

Wittgenstein says in his Philosophical Investigations, Arent there games
we play in which we make up the rules as we go along, including this one.
Nu. Any Yiddish speaker knows that. A good example of playing with the
rules might be Montaignes essays, the form that people say he invented.
Shoyn, a big inventor. Jews have always spoken essays. The scandal of
Montaignes essays is that they have only an incidental relation to a
consecutive logical argument but they are cogent nonetheless. Their shape
is their sense. It is determined by motions of his mind and feelings, not
by a pretention to rigorously logical procedure. Montaigne literally
claims his essays are himself. Between you and him nothing intervenes. A
Gentile friend used to say, in regard to writing she didnt like, Theres
nobody home. You dont have to have Jewish ancestors, like those of
Montaigne and Wittgenstein, to understand what she means.

I didnt speak English until I was five because my mother didnt speak
English. My father had gone back to Poland to find a wife. He returned
with an attractive seventeen-year-old who wore her hair in a long black
braid. Men would hit on her, so my father wouldnt let her go take English
classes. She learned English by doing my elementary-school homework with
me. As for me, before and after the age of five, I was susceptible to lung
diseases and spent a lot of time in a feverish bed, in a small apartment
on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where nobody spoke anything but
Yiddish. Years passed before I could ride a bike or catch a ball. In a
playground fight, a girl could have wiped me out. I was badly coordinated
and had no strength or speed, only a Yiddish mouth.

For a long time, Yiddish was my whole world. In this world family didnt
gather before dinner for cocktails and conversation. There were no
cocktails, but conversation was daylong and it included criticism,
teasing, opinionating, gossiping, joking. It could also be very gloomy. To
gather before dinner for conversation would have seemed unnatural. I
experienced the pleasure of such conversation for the first time at the
University of Michigan, around 1956. It was my habit to join a friend at
his apartment after classes. He made old-fashioneds and put music on the
phonograph, usually chamber music. By the time we left for dinner, I felt
uplifted by conversation and splendid music. Mainly, I was drunk, also a
new experience. Among my Jews, conversation had no ritual character, no
aesthetic qualities. I never learned to cultivate the sort of detachment
that allows for the always potentially offensive personal note. Where I
came from, everything was personal.

>>From family conversation I gathered that, outside of my Yiddish
child-world, there were savages who didnt have much to say but could fix
the plumbing. They were fond of animals, liked to go swimming, loved to
drink and fight. All their problems were solved when they hut geharget
yiddin. Killed Jews. Only the last has been impossible for me to dismiss.
Like many other people I have fixed my own plumbing, owned a dog and a
cat, gotten drunk, etc., but everything in my life, beginning with
English, has been an uncertain movement away from my hut geharget Yiddish
childhood. When a BBC poet said he wanted to shoot Jews on the West Bank,
I thought, Epes. What else is new? His righteousness, his freedom to say
it, suggests that he believes he is merely speaking English, and
antisemitism is a kind of syntax, or what Wittgenstein calls a form of
life. But in fact there is something new, or anyhow more evident lately.
The geharget yiddin disposition now operates at a remove. You see it in
people who become hysterical when they feel that their ancient right to
hate Jews is brought into question. To give an example would open a boxcar
of worms.

Its possible to talk about French without schlepping the historical,
cultural, or national character of a people into consideration. You cannot
talk that way about Yiddish unless you adopt a narrow scholarly focus, or
restrict yourself to minutiae of usage. The language has flourished in a
number of countries. Theoretically, it has no territorial boundary. The
meaning of Yiddish, in one respect, is No Boundaries. In another respect,
for a people without a land, the invisible boundaries couldnt be more
clear. There is mutual contempt between what are called universalist Jews
and Jewish Jews. Its an old situation. During the centuries of the Spanish
Inquisition, Jews turned on Jews. In Shakespeares The Merchant of
Veniceassuming the merchant Antonio is a gay converso, or new Christian,
and Shylock is an Old Testament moralistic Jewish Jewthe pound of flesh, a
grotesquely exaggerated circumcision, is to remind Antonio (who says, I
know not why I am so sad) of his origins.

The first time I went to a baseball game, the great slugger Hank
Greenberg, during warm-up, casually tossed a ball into the stands, a gift
to the crowd of pre-adolescent kids among whom I sat. My hand, thrusting
up in a blossom of hands, closed on that baseball. I carried it home, the
only palpable treasure Id ever owned. I never had toys. On Christmas
nights I sometimes dreamed of waking and finding toys in the living room.
Tokeh? Yes, really. If there is a support group for Christmas depressives,
I will be your leader. The baseball made me feel like a real American. It
happened to me long before I had a romance with the mythical blonde who
grants citizenship to Jews. By then I was already fifteen. I had tasted
traif and long ago stopped speaking Yiddish except when I worked as a
waiter in Catskills hotels. What Yiddish remained was enough to understand
jokes, complaints, insults, and questions. As guests entered the dining
room, a waiter might say, Here come the vildeh chayes, or wild animals.
One evening in the Catskills I went to hear a political talk, given in
Yiddish. I understood little except that Yiddish could be a language of
analysis, spoken by intellectuals. I felt alienated and rather ashamed of
myself for not being like them.

Family members could speak Polish as well as Yiddish, and some Hebrew and
Russian. My father worked for a short while in Paris and could manage
French. My mother had gone to high school in Poland and was fluent in
Polish, but refused to speak the language even when I asked her to. Her
memory of pogroms made it unspeakable. In Yiddish and English I heard
about her father, my grandfather, a tailor who made uniforms for Polish
army officers. Once, after hed worked all night to finish a uniform, the
officer wouldnt pay. My grandfather, waving a pair of scissors, threatened
to cut the uniform to pieces. The officer paid. The Germans later murdered
my grandfather, his wife, and one daughter. Polish officers imprisoned in
Katyn forest and elsewhere were massacred by Stalin. This paragraph,
beginning with the first sentence and concluding with a moral, is in the
form of a geshichte, or Yiddish story, except that its in English and
merely true.

At the center of my Yiddish, lest I have yet failed to make myself clear,
remains hut geharget yiddin, from which, like the disgorged contents of a
black hole in the universe, come the jokes, the thinking, the meanings,
and the meaninglessness. In 1979, American writers were sent to Europe by
the State Department. I went to Poland and gave talks in Warsaw, Poznan,
and Cracow. I was surprised by how much seemed familiar, and exceedingly
surprised by the intelligence and decency of the Poles, a few of whom
became friends and visited me later in America. One of the Poles whom I
didnt see again was a woman in Cracow with beautiful blue eyes and other
features very like my mothers. I was certain that she was a Jew though she
wore a cross. I didnt ask her questions. I didnt want to know her story. I
could barely look at her. I detest the word shiksa, which Ive heard used
more often by friendly antisemites than Jews, but in my personal depths it
applies to her.

As suggested earlier, in Yiddish there is respect for meaninglessness. If
the woman in Cracow was passing as a Catholic, was she therefore a specter
of meaninglessness who haunted me, the child of Polish Jews, passing as an
American writer? A familiar saying comes to mind, If you forget you are a
Jew, a Gentile will remind you, but, in the way of forgetting, things have
gone much further. Lately, it might take a Jew to remind a Jew that he or
she is a Jew. Then there is a risk of ruining the friendship. For an
extreme example, I have had depressing arguments with Jewish Stalinists
who, despite evidence from numerous and unimpeachable sources that Stalin
murdered Jews because they were Jews, remain Stalinists. Its as if they
would rather die than let personal identity spoil their illusions. Thus,
the Jewish face of insanity says to me, Stalin was a good guy. He just got
a bad rap. A demonic parallel to this mentality is in the way Nazis used
material resources, critical to their military effort, to murder Jews even
as the Russian army was at the gates. They would rather die etc. In the
second century, Tertullian, a father of the Christian church, insisted
that absurdity is critical to belief. His political sophistication seems
to me breathtaking, and also frightening in its implications. As the
believers multiply everywhere, it becomes harder to believerationallyin
almost anything.

Paradox as a cognitive mode is everywhere in Yiddish. Its probably in the
genes and may explain the Jewish love of jokes. The flight from sense to
brilliance effects an instant connection with listeners. Hobbes calls
laughter sudden glory, which is a superb phrase, but Ive seen the Jewish
comics, Lenny Bruce and Myron Cohen, reduce a nightclub audience to
convulsive and inglorious agonies of laughter. When I worked in the
Catskills hotels I noticed that it was often the tumler, or the hotel
comic and hellraiser, to whom women abandoned themselves. Jerry Lewis,
formerly a tumler, said in a televised interview that at the height of his
fame he had four broads a day. As opposed to Jerry Lewis, Hannah Arendt
preferred disconnection. She used the snobbish word banal to describe the
murderer of millions of Jews, and later said in a letter that despite the
abuse she had received for using that word, she remained light-hearted.

Family was uncles and aunts who escaped from Poland and immigrated to the
United States. They stayed with us until they found their own apartments.
Id wake in the morning and see small Jews sleeping on the living room
floor. My aunt Molly, long after she had a place of her own, often stayed
overnight and slept on the floor. She was very lonely. Her husband was
dead, her children had families of their own. A couch with a sheet,
blanket, and pillow was available, but she refused such comforts. She
wanted to be less than no trouble. She wore two or three dresses at once,
almost her entire wardrobe. She slept on the floor in her winter coat and
dresses. To see Molly first thing in the morning, curled against a wall,
didnt make us feel good. She was the same height as my mother, around five
feet, and had a beautiful intelligent melancholy face. I never saw her
laugh, though she might chuckle softly, and she smiled when she teased me.
She used to krotz (scratch) my back as I went to sleep, and she liked to
speak to me in rhymes. First they were entirely Yiddish. Then English
entered the rhymes.

Label, gay fressen.
A fish shtayt on de tish.

Lenny, go eat.
A fish is on the table.

Shtayt doesnt exactly mean is. Stands on the table or stays on the table
or exists on the table would be somewhat imprecise, though I think A fish
exists on the table is wonderful. I once brought a girlfriend home, and
Aunt Molly said, very politely, You are looking very fit. Her fit sounded
like fet, which suggested fat. My girlfriend squealed in protest. It took
several minutes to calm her down. The pronunciation of fet for fit is
typical of Yiddishified English, which is almost a third language. I speak
it like a native when telling jokes. The audience for such jokes has
diminished over the years because most Jews now are politically liberal
and have college degrees and consider such jokes undignified or racist. A
joke that touches on this development tells of Jewish parents who worry
about a son who studies English literature at Harvard. They go to see
Kittredge, the great Shakespeare scholar, and ask if he thinks their sons
Yiddish accent is a disadvantage. Kittredge booms, Vot ekcent?

As a child I knew only one Jew who was concerned to make a bella figura.
He was a highly respected doctor, very handsome, always dressed in a fine
suit and, despite his appearance, fluent in Yiddish. His office was in the
neighborhood. He came every morning to my fathers barber shop for a shave.
A comparable miracle was the chicken-flicker down the block, a boisterous
man who yelled at customers in vulgar funny Yiddish. This mans son was a
star at MIT. In regard to such miracles, an expression I often heard was
He is up from pushcarts. It means he went from the Yiddish immigrant
poverty to money or, say, a classy professorship. The day of such
expressions is past. In the Sixties there were Jewish kids who, as opposed
to the spirit of Irving Howes The World of Our Fathers, yelled, Kill the
parents. The suicidal implication is consistent with the paradoxical
Yiddish they no longer spoke.

If I dressed nicely to go out, my mother would ask why I was fapitzed,
which suggests tarted up. Yiddish is critical of pretentions to being
better than a Jew, and also critical of everything else. A man wants to
have sex or wants to peewhat a scream. A woman appears naked before her
husband and says, I havent got a thing to wear. He says, Take a shave. You
look like a bum. Henry Adams speaks of derisive Jew laughter. It is easy
to find derision produced by Jews, but Adamss word, aside from its stupid
viciousness, betrays the self-hate and fear that inspires antisemitism
among the educated, not excluding Jews. Ezra Pound called his own
antisemitic ravings stupid. The relation of stupidity and evil has long
been noted.

Jewish laughter has a liberal purview and its numerous forms, some very
silly, seem to me built into Yiddish. Sometime around puberty, I decided
to use shampoo rather than handsoap to wash my hair. I bought a bottle of
Breck. My father noticed and said in Yiddish, Nothing but the best. I
still carry his lesson in my heart, though I have never resumed using
handsoap instead of shampoo. What has this to do with Yiddish? In my case,
plenty, since it raises the question, albeit faintly, Who do you think you

What I have retained of Yiddish, Im sorry to say, isnt much above the
level of my Aunt Mollys poems. But what good to me is Yiddish? Recently,
in Rome, during the High Holidays, a cordon was established around the
synagogue in the ghetto, guarded by the police and local Jews. As I tried
to pass I was stopped by a Jew. I was amazed. Couldnt he tell? I said, Ich
bin a yid. Los mir gayen arein. He said, Let me see your passport. La mia
madrelingua wasnt his. This happened to me before with Morrocan Jews in
France. Ive wondered about Spinoza. His Latin teacher was German, and the
first Yiddish newspaper was published in Amsterdam around the time of his
death. Did he know Yiddish?

Im sure of very little about what I know except that the Yiddish I cant
speak is more natural to my being than English, and partly for that reason
Ive studied English poets. There is a line in T. S. Eliot where he says
words slip, slide, crack or something. "Come off it, Tom," I think. "With
words you never had no problem." Who would suspect from his hateful remark
about a Jew in furs that Eliots family, like my mothers ancestors in
Vienna, was up from the fur business? Eliot liked Groucho Marx, a Jew, but
did he wonder when writing Four Quartets, with its striking allusions to
Saint John of the Cross, that the small dark brilliant mystical monk might
have been a Jew?

Let there be light are the first spoken words in the Old Testament. This
light is understanding, not merely seeing. The Yiddish saying, To kill a
person is to kill a world, means the person is no longer the embodiment,
or a mode of the glorious nothing that is the light, or illuminated world.
This idea, I believe, is elaborated in Spinozas Ethics. Existenceor
beingentails ethics. Maybe the idea is also in Wittgenstein, who opens the
Tractatus this way: The world is everything that is the case. So what is
the case? If its the case that facts are bound up with values, it seems
Yiddish or Spinozist. Possibly for this reason Jewish writers in English
dont write about murder as well as Christians. Even Primo Levi, whose
great subject is murder, doesnt offer the lacerating specificity one might

In regard to my own writing, its subterranean Yiddish keeps me from being
good at killing characters. The closest Ive come is a story called
Trotskys Garden, where I adopt a sort of Yiddish intonation to talk about
his life. Id read a psychological study that claimed Trotsky was
responsible for murders only to please Lenin, his father figure. If so,
his behavior was even worse than Id thought. I wrote my story out of
disappointment. I had wanted to admire Trotsky for his brilliant mind,
courage, and extraordinary literary gifts. His description of mowing wheat
in his diaries, for example, almost compares with Tolstoys description of
the same thing in Anna Karenina. Yiddish can be brutal, as, for example,
Gay koken aff yam, which means Go shit in the ocean, but in regard to
murder what Jew compares with Shakespeare, Webster, Mark Twain, Flannery
OConnor, Cormac McCarthy, or Elmore Leonard? The Old Testament story of
Abraham and Isaac, which is of profound importance to three faiths, stops
short of murder, but it is relevant to the children in contemporary
religious terrorism.

A story by Bernard Malamud begins with the death of a father whose name is
Ganz. In Yiddish, ganz means all or the whole thing or everything.
Metaphorically, with the death of Ganz, the whole world dies. Everything
is killed. Malamud couldnt have named the father Ganz if he had written
the story in Yiddish. It would be too funny and undermine all seriousness.
The death of a father, or a world-killed-in-a-person, is the reason for
Hamlets excessive grief, a condition feared among Jews for a reason given
in the play: All the uses of this world seem to me weary, stale, flat, and
unprofitable. Because Hamlet Senior is dead, Hamlet Junior is as good as
dead. Early in the play he jokes about walking into his grave, and the
fifth act opens, for no reason, with Hamlet in a graveyard, and then he
actually jumps into a grave. On the subject of grief, in Mourning and
Melancholia, Freud follows Shakespeare. Like Hamlet, who demands that his
mother look at the picture of his father, Freud makes a great deal of the
residual, or cathectic, force of an image. Again, regarding my Yiddish,
when I once wrote about my fathers death, I restricted my grief to a few
images and a simple lamentation: He gave. I took. My short sentences are
self-critical, and have no relation to the work of writers known for short
sentences. They are only Yiddish terseness seizing an English equivalent.

Shakespeares short sentenceslike Let it come down, Ripeness is all, Can
Fulvia die?seem to me amazing. I couldnt write one of those. This
confession brings a joke instantly to mind. The synagogues janitor is
beating his breast and saying, Oh, Lord, I am nothing. He is overheard by
the rabbi who says, Look who is nothing. Both men are ridiculed. A Jewish
writer has to be careful. Between schmaltz and irony there is just an itty
bitty step.

My mother sometimes switches in midsentence, when talking to me, from
English to Yiddish. If meaning can leave English and reappear in Yiddish,
does it have an absolutely necessary relation to either language?
Linguists say, No. Anything you can say in German you can say in Swahili
which is increasingly Arabic. But no poet could accept the idea of
linguistic equivalence, and a religious fanatic might want to kill you for
proposing it. Ultimately, I believe, meaning has less to do with language
than with music, a sensuous flow that becomes language only by default, so
to speak, and by degrees. In great fiction and poetry, meaning is
obviously close to music. Writing about a story by Gogol, Nabokov says it
goes la, la, do, la la la etc. The storys meaning is radically musical.
Ive often had to rewrite a paragraph because the sound was wrong. When at
last it seemed right, I discoveredincrediblythe sense was right. Sense
follows sound. Otherwise we couldnt speak so easily or quickly. If someone
speaks slowly, and sense unnaturally precedes sound, the person can seem
too deliberative; emotionally false, boring. I can tell stories all day,
but to write one that sounds right entails labors of indefinable innerness
until I hear the thing I must hear before it is heard by anyone else. A
standard of rightness probably exists for me in my residual subliminal
Yiddish. Its effect is to inhibit as well as to liberate. An expression,
popular not long ago, I hear you, was intended to assure you of being
understood personally, as if there were a difference in comprehension
between hearing and really hearing. In regard to being really heard, there
are things in Yiddish that cant be heard in English. Hazar fisl kosher. A
pig has clean feet. It is an expression of contempt for hypocrisy. The
force is in Yiddish concision. A pig is not clean. With clean feet it is
even less clean. Another example: I was talking to a friend about a
famous, recently deceased writer. The friend said, Hes ausgespielt. Beyond
dead. Hes played out. So forget it. Too much has been said about him.

Cultural intuitions, or forms or qualities of meaning, dancing about in
language, derive from the unique historical experience of peoples. The
intuitions are not in dictionaries but carried by tones, gestures, nuances
effected by word order, etc. When I understood the old men in Paris I
didnt do or intend anything. It wasnt a moment of romantic introspection.
I didnt know what language I heard. I didnt understand that I understood.
What comes to mind is the assertion that begins the Book of John: In the
beginning was the word. A sound, a physical thing, the word is also
mental. So this monism can be understood as the nature of everything. Like
music that is the meaning of stories, physical and mental are aspects of
each other. Yiddish, with its elements of German, Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin,
Spanish, Polish, Russian, Rumanian, is metaphorically everything. A people
driven hither and yon, and obliged to assimilate so much, returned
immensely more to the world. How they can become necessary to murder is
the hideous paradox of evil.

When I was five years old, I started school in a huge gloomy Vic-torian
building where nobody spoke Yiddish. It was across the street from
Knickerbocker Village, the project in which I lived. To cross that street
meant going from love to hell. I said nothing in the classroom and sat
apart and alone, and tried to avoid the teachers evil eye. Eventually, she
decided that I was a moron, and wrote a letter to my parents saying I
would be transferred to the "ungraded class" where I would be happier and
could play ping-pong all day. My mother couldnt read the letter so she
showed it to our neighbor, a woman from Texas named Lynn Nations. A real
American, she boasted of Indian blood, though she was blond and had the
cheekbones, figure, and fragility of a fashion model. She would ask us to
look at the insides of her teeth, and see how they were cupped. To Lynn
this proved descent from original Americans. She was very fond of me,
though we had no conversation, and I spent hours in her apartment looking
at her art books and eating forbidden foods. I could speak to her husband,
Arthur Kleinman, yet another furrier, and a lefty union activist, who knew

Lynn believed I was brighter than a moron and went to the school
principal, which my mother would never have dared to do, and demanded an
intelligence test for me. Impressed by her Katharine Hepburn looks, the
principal arranged for a school psychologist to test me. Afterwards, I was
advanced to a grade beyond my age with several other kids, among them a
boy named Bonfiglio and a girl named Estervez. I remember their names
because we were seated according to our IQ scores. Behind Bonfiglio and
Estervez was me, a kid who couldnt even ask permission to go the bathroom.
In the higher grade I had to read and write and speak English. It happened
virtually overnight so I must have known more than I knew. When I asked my
mother about this she said, Sure you knew English. You learned from
trucks. She meant: while lying in my sickbed I would look out the window
at trucks passing in the street; studying the words written on their
sides, I taught myself English. Unfortunately, high fevers burned away
most of my brain, so I now find it impossible to learn a language from
trucks. A child learns any language at incredible speed. Again, in a
metaphorical sense, Yiddish is the language of children wandering for a
thousand years in a nightmare, assimilating languages to no avail.

I remember the black shining print of my first textbook, and my fearful
uncertainty as the meanings came with all their exotic Englishness and
de-voured what had previously inhered in my Yiddish. Something remained
indigestible. What it is can be suggested, in a Yiddish style, by contrast
with English. A line from a poem by Wallace Stevens, which I have
discussed elsewhere, seems to me quintessentially goyish, or antithetical
to Yiddish:

It is the word pejorative that hurts.

Stevens affects detachment from his subject, which is the poets romantic
heart, by playing on a French construction: word pejorative, like mot
juste, makes the adjective follow the noun. Detachment is further
evidenced in the rhyme of word and hurts. The delicate resonance gives the
faint touch of hurtful impact without obliging the reader to suffer the
experience. The line is ironically detached even from detachment. In
Yiddish there is plenty of irony, but not so nicely mannered or sensitive
to a readers experience of words. Stevenss line would seem too
self-regarding; and the luxurious subtlety of his sensibility would seem
unintelligible, if not ridiculous. He flaunts sublimities here, but it
must be said that elsewhere he is as visceral and concrete as any Yiddish

Ive lost too much of my Yiddish to know exactly how much remains.
Something remains. A little of its genius might be at work in my
sentences, but this has nothing to do with me personally. The pleasures of
complexity and the hilarity of idiocy, as well as an idea of whats good or
isnt good, are in Yiddish. If it speaks in my sentences, it isnt I, let
alone me, who speaks.

When asked what he would have liked to be if he hadnt been born an
Englishman, Lord Palmerston said, An Englishman. The answer reminds me of
a joke. A Jew sees himself in a mirror after being draped in a suit by a
high-class London tailor. The tailor asks whats wrong. The Jew says,
crying, Vee lost de empire. The joke assimilates the insane fury that
influenced the nature of Yiddish and makes it apparent that identity for a
Jew is not, as for Palmerston, a witty preference.

Leonard Michaels wrote My Yiddish for an anthology called The Genius of
Language, to be published next year by Pantheon. A longtime consulting
editor to The Threepenny Review, he appeared thirty times in these pages
between 1980 and 2002; he died on May 10, 2003.

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list