3p Home Page The Threepenny Review
Fall 2003

My Yiddish

Image Map - Text Links at Page Bottom
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 hadn’t translated what the old men said. I hadn’t 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, it’s acknowledged in IQ tests, the value of which is subject to debate. It’s also acknowledged in daily life in countless informal ways. You’re on the same wave length with others or you are not. The Paris incident, where I rediscovered The Understanding, made me wonder if Descartes’s 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, “What’s green, hangs on the wall, and whistles?”

The student says, “I don’t know.”

The rabbi says, “A herring.”

The student says, “Maybe a herring could be green and hang on the wall, but it absolutely doesn’t whistle.”

The rabbi says, “So it doesn’t whistle.”


The joke is inherent in Yiddish, not any other language. It’s funny, and, like a story by Kafka, it isn’t funny. I confess that I don’t 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 don’t mean anything—nu, 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 speech—between you and me—rather 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 doesn’t whistle.

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 moment”—a stress followed by two neutral syllables—introduces 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 don’t. 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 O’Casey’s lovelier prose you hear an Irish kind.

Wittgenstein says in his Philosophical Investigations, “Aren’t 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 Montaigne’s essays, the form that people say he invented. Shoyn, a big inventor. Jews have always spoken essays. The scandal of Montaigne’s 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 didn’t like, “There’s nobody home.” You don’t have to have Jewish ancestors, like those of Montaigne and Wittgenstein, to understand what she means.


I didn’t speak English until I was five because my mother didn’t 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 wouldn’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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.

It’s 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 couldn’t be more clear. There is mutual contempt between what are called “universalist Jews” and Jewish Jews. It’s an old situation. During the centuries of the Spanish Inquisition, Jews turned on Jews. In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice—assuming the merchant Antonio is a gay converso, or new Christian, and Shylock is an Old Testament moralistic Jewish Jew—the 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 I’d 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 he’d worked all night to finish a uniform, the officer wouldn’t 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 it’s 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 didn’t see again was a woman in Cracow with beautiful blue eyes and other features very like my mother’s. I was certain that she was a Jew though she wore a cross. I didn’t ask her questions. I didn’t want to know her story. I could barely look at her. I detest the word “shiksa,” which I’ve 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. It’s 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 believe—rationally—in almost anything.

Paradox as a cognitive mode is everywhere in Yiddish. It’s 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 I’ve 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. I’d 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, didn’t 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” doesn’t 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 son’s 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 father’s 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 man’s 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 Howe’s 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 pee—what a scream. A woman appears naked before her husband and says, “I haven’t 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 Adams’s 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 are?”

What I have retained of Yiddish, I’m sorry to say, isn’t much above the level of my Aunt Molly’s 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. Couldn’t he tell? I said, “Ich bin a yid. Los mir gayen arein.” He said, “Let me see your passport.” La mia madrelingua wasn’t his. This happened to me before with Morrocan Jews in France. I’ve 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?


I’m sure of very little about what I know except that the Yiddish I can’t speak is more natural to my being than English, and partly for that reason I’ve 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 Eliot’s family, like my mother’s 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 Spinoza’s Ethics. Existence—or being—entails 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 it’s the case that facts are bound up with values, it seems Yiddish or Spinozist. Possibly for this reason Jewish writers in English don’t write about murder as well as Christians. Even Primo Levi, whose great subject is murder, doesn’t offer the lacerating specificity one might expect.

In regard to my own writing, its subterranean Yiddish keeps me from being good at killing characters. The closest I’ve come is a story called “Trotsky’s Garden,” where I adopt a sort of Yiddish intonation to talk about his life. I’d 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 I’d 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 Tolstoy’s 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 O’Connor, 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 couldn’t 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 Hamlet’s 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 father’s 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.

Shakespeare’s short sentences—like “Let it come down,” “Ripeness is all,” “Can Fulvia die?”—seem to me amazing. I couldn’t write one of those. This confession brings a joke instantly to mind. The synagogue’s 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 story’s meaning is radically musical. I’ve often had to rewrite a paragraph because the sound was wrong. When at last it seemed right, I discovered—incredibly—the sense was right. Sense follows sound. Otherwise we couldn’t 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 can’t 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, “He’s ausgespielt.” Beyond dead. He’s 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 didn’t do or intend anything. It wasn’t a moment of romantic introspection. I didn’t know what language I heard. I didn’t 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 teacher’s 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 couldn’t 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 Yiddish.

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 couldn’t 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 poet’s 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 reader’s experience of words. Stevens’s 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 speaker.

I’ve 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 what’s good or isn’t good, are in Yiddish. If it speaks in my sentences, it isn’t I, let alone me, who speaks.

When asked what he would have liked to be if he hadn’t 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 what’s 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.



Click here
for more about
Leonard Michaels
lines

Home PageCurrent IssuePast IssuesReading RoomGallery
BooksLinksAdvertisingSubmissionsSubscribeContact Us

The Threepenny Review