It takes a Yiddishe Kup to play Yiddish bingo, but when you join the the Yiddish Club’s festivities at the Ezra Center in Anaheim, it’s not so difficult. Words may be pronounced with eight different accents, depending on whether your mishpacha were Galician from Poland or Ukraine, Litvaks from Lithuania, Russians, Slovakians, or Germans. Ah, but if they were German, yours was an “elite” dialect, more high class and cultured, so the saying goes.
“Where you came from is how you pronounce the word,” advised Ann Nanes, The Yiddish Club instructor.
That brought up the spelling of the word sthtetl (village) as members began reminiscing about their neshumah (relatives) and where they came from. A serious discussion arose. “E” between the two “T’s?” Eight different ways to spell were offered. Finally the decision: SHTETEL. Nanes explained, “We will spell it as it sounds, because there’s no common English spelling for Yiddish words.”
Hers is not a lecturing class. There’s Jewish music, literature, jokes, and lots of remembrances shared. Some come because they once spoke Yiddish at home, forgot it, and want to learn it again. And they all — ages 62 to 92, first and second generation Americans — love to hear it spoken; it brings back remembrances of childhood. They agreed, “We come out of our shell. Our needs are fulfilled in a comfortable way.” Nanes’ goal is to “reach out to the Yiddish community to join us.”
“It’s such a warm, beautiful, cozy language; Yiddish unites us,” Nanes enlightened. “Yiddish is not only the Mama Loshen; it is the backbone of Jewish culture and Jewish history, rooted in Talmud and Torah. It is also the path of our Jewish identity of many yesteryears and is the connective thread to the Jewish future and creativity. With the popularity of Fiddler on the Roof, which personifies many of our parents’ lives, there is more appreciation of shetetl life now.”
Early twentieth century saw the rise of Yiddish theater. Nanes’ goal is to bring Yiddishkayt to Orange County to stimulate the Jewish community in its simple beauty, charm, and warmth.
Yiddish was Nanes’ first language, the language spoken at home, and the only language in which she currently communicates with her only two living uncles. Six years ago, as a volunteer leader for the Yiddish Club, she was tapped as a “show and tell.”
She explained, “My daughter’s friend invited me to her Yiddish college class. I was the star for an hour; I found myself and became a born again alte hyidneh (old Yiddish woman)/yige frau (young woman). So I went in search of ‘talking Yiddish’ at the Ezra Center.”
Born in a labor camp in Russia, following her parents’ escape from Komarow, Poland, when the Germans entered, she and her family lived in various DP camps in Germany, before emigrating to the US in 1951.
“Wanting to be a regular Americana maydel,” she quickly began learning English in second grade, earned a teaching credential in college, and taught junior high math. For some 30 years she has taught sixth grade religious school at Temple Beth Tikvah, where she and husband, Roger, a faculty member in the physics department at Cal State Fullerton, have been members. A 20-year sales realtor, she is currently an arbitrator for the Board of Realtors and, among her many volunteer activities, leads a class on budgeting at the North Orange County Womens Shelter.
Nanes and her sisters spoke English and Yiddish to each other. She laughed, “My parents spoke Polish for the children not to hear, and the children spoke English for the parents not to understand.” Such was the history of Yiddish in many Jewish homes for decades, where Yiddish was a “secret language,” spoken by the parents when they didn’t want the children to understand.
Many come to Nanes’ class to recapture a feeling of family. According to member Claire Lazerson, “Yiddish is the soul of the Jewish people. Wherever you travel, Jews can find someone to speak to in Yiddish. It is almost a universal language. It allows us to reminisce, reconnect, and recapture the younger parts of our lives. We find comfort and comfortableness expressing ourselves in this way. Yiddish is our inheritance. We want to keep it alive and to pass it on.”
“Older than German, Yiddish dates from the fourteenth century, (some say the tenth), and was almost wiped out in the twentieth,” explained Jean Franklin. “I speak German so I can understand Yiddish, and words keep coming back since I joined this club. It is a bastard German with Hebrew.”
“Yiddish has a very small vocabulary,” according to Nanes. “Each word hinges on the relationship and situation through the speaker’s expressions and emotions, which gives each word its source of meaning, impact, and charm.”
Most emigres came from Eastern Europe where many Jewish boys could read and write. When they came to America as “greenhorns,” they wanted to eradicate their past life and to assimilate. Children intermarried and Yiddish declined. But there has been a resurgence in the last decade; universities and colleges are now offering classes. Yiddish is no longer a dying language, but a living culture. It is spelled phonetically, but uses Hebrew script and is a legitimate language now with a grammar structure. High German is now spoken in Vienna, Austria, where it is written in Hebrew without vowels.
The group’s favorite song is Privecheck [fireplace] which personifies Yiddish: It is cold outside; you want to draw the warmth of the fire. It makes you feel protected, warm, and cuddly.
They delight in telling mensies (stories) and buba mizers to help overcome the Jewish tradition of “born to kvetch,” teaching that a righteous person should be subtle. Question: “How’s business?” Answer: “I’m making a living.” Never “fantastic.” One wants to ward off the “evil eye;” one doesn’t want to give himself a “kina hora.”
In day-to-day living, Jews try to find humor, Nanes explained. A typical example–If you broke an arm and someone asked, “How’s it going?” Answer: “Lucky I didn’t break both arms.”
Nanes recently returned from a trip to Komorow, Poland, “where I searched for my Yiddishe neshumah, as well as the house, the street, and the sthtetl where my parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and their family and friends lived their lives. On this trip, my Yiddish served as an entree to several memorable experiences, including meeting the head Rabbi of Krakow and being invited to a private tour of the former synagogue in Lublin.”
For further information on the Yiddish Social Club, housed on the grounds of Temple Beth Emet, contact Ann Nanes, firstname.lastname@example.org or call Anne Zane, (714) 535-1489. For information on the Ezra Center, email@example.com, Bob Wilkoff, president, (714)447-9435; or Margalit Moskowitz, activity director, (714) 776-1103.