The Beauty and Universality of the Yiddish Language
By Dovid Kunigis - Montreal, Canada.
These following two vignettes are true personal experiences that illustrate the beauty and universality of the Yiddish language, as well as
the humour connected with the stories.
When one of our daughters accompanied me on a trip to the Central Train Station, on a hot summer day, I met a black man who had worked with me a long, long time ago, when we were both teenagers working in the 'Shmate' business, (clothing industry) in Montreal. In those early days, most of the needle trade industry was owned and staffed mostly by Jewish owners and their workers. The common language among them was mostly in Yiddish.
This fellow, Rodney Millington, learned the Yiddish language and was able to speak it fluently. Every time we met, he got a great kick of greeting me in Yiddish, and we carried on a bit of catch up news about each other. As we stood in the central station on this hot day, my daughter, Robin, asked me if she can buy an ice cream, I gave her the money and as she left, I said to Rodney, when my daughter returns, to keep up the conversation in Yiddish.
Can you imagine the look on Robin's face, when she saw her father engrossed in a serious conversation with this black man, entirely in Yiddish? Her big blue eyes grew wider and wider, her mouth half opened and the ice cream cone in her hand melting, glancing at Rodney, then at me, back and forth, finally, Rodney said, Dave, "lomir beyde zayn gezunt un geris dayn froy fun mir."
(Let us both be healthy and give my regards to your wife) We shook hands and left. Robin, still in awe and bewildered, said, Dad, he spoke in Yiddish to you. My cool response was, so what’s so strange about that?
About a year later, my sister's son became Bar Mitzva, and she had a reception at her house for the family and friends. She needed a bartender, and was wondering if I knew anyone whom she could get for that occasion. I instantly thought of Rodney, and I said to her, “I'll check with this guy who works on the trains as a stewart waiter and has bar tending experience, and if he would be in town for that date, I'll try to get him, and this would be my treat.”
I called Rodney, and sure enough he would be in town. I told him again, that I needed him to fill in as bartender for this Bar Mitzva reception, but he was to speak only in Yiddish to everyone there, as he was taking orders for the drinks. He readily agreed. I wish I had a camera to record all the various reactions of the guests that were greeted with a hearty MAZL TOV—by Rodney.
When the grandmother of the Bar Mitzva boy came up to the bar, and was greeted with, "A HARTSIKN MAZL TOV BOBE..." I thought the bobe would faint from surprise and shock. It was worth every penny I paid Rodney for this job.
On one of our vacations in Cuba, my wife and I were privileged to attend a Purim concert at the main synagogue in Havana. We were seated in the front row seats, that were reserved for the VIP's, and the reason for this VIP treatment, was because the reception committee found out that one of their committee members, was the barber in Vilkomir Lithuania, who gave me my first haircut.
We were very impressed with the costumes, the singing, and the whole program, but I noticed a slight accent when the children sang the Yiddish songs. It wasn't a 'Polish' accent, nor a 'Litvish' or 'Russian' or 'Galitsianer' accent, and I was somewhat, miffed, because I usually could detect all kinds of Yiddish accents.
I learned that the teacher, who taught the children the songs, wasn't even Jewish. She had learned the songs phonetically and this is how she taught it to the children.
Later on I had the opportunity to present an impromptu program for the congregation after a Saturday morning service. After the services I was thanked in several languages, but mostly in my beloved Yiddish.
On another vacation in Cuba, after an evening of dancing and entertainment by some splendid Cuban artists, singers, dancers, and various performers, Barbara and I were relaxing with a nightcap, on the patio, in front of our cabin, when two couples, who just had arrived from Canada, strolled by and one of the women, mumbled under her breath: "Men redt Yiddish?" I gladly answered in the affirmative, "Yo, men redt Yiddish." These two couples were from Toronto.Editor’s note: Dovid is a long time reader of Der Bay and has contributed articles over the years. He was Principal of a Yiddish School and can be reached at: DOVIDK@videotron.ca