Yesterday I saw that Duolingo has announced a Yiddish course. I signed up for it today.
My father’s parents were native speakers of Yiddish. My father knew a fair bit of it, but I don’t think he was ever fluent in it. He didn’t speak much of it around the house. On the other hand, he would often recite a rhyme in it, “Es war a finster nacht in Brownsville” and there were lots of expressions, such as the mild curse “A schvartz yar af Columbus,” “A black year on Columbus,” which he said every now and then. That latter is sort of the immigrants’ lament “The streets aren’t really paved with gold here, maybe we shouldn’t have come after all.” Older relatives asked me many times, “Do you speak Jewish?” by which they meant Yiddish, but I didn’t. When I was a kid Jewish magazines would have articles every couple of months about “Yiddish is dying out! What are we going to do?” When I rode the subway out to my grandparents’ apartment in Brooklyn on vacations from college, there would be a couple of people reading Yiddish newspapers in every subway car. The newspaper (The Forward) is still in business but nowadays only publishes in English. In recent years I have heard older men speaking Yiddish in the locker room at the Jewish Community Center, but when I say “recent” I really mean fifteen or twenty years ago.
The strange thing is that although the language is disappearing as a means of everyday communication, more and more Yiddish words are making their way into mainstream English. A couple of years ago I parked my car outside a Newton Art Association board meeting and the woman who pulled up behind me got out laughing and asked, “Were you listening to NPR? Did you hear what Kai Ryssdal just said?” I don’t remember what it was, but it was a couple of words of Yiddish that I hadn’t thought of as American English up to that point.
In the morning we went over to Mahoney’s Garden Center in Brighton and came home with several bags of potting soil and composted cow manure and a lot of plants to put in the garden. It’s another sign of emerging from the pandemic and going back to stores. We walked up the hill across the street and around the Andover-Newton campus again. At home, we did some raking of the front yard and admired the lack of junk leaning against the garage doors after the cleanup we did yesterday.