An Appreciation for The Yiddish Novel
By: Mildred Eisenberg, Ph.D.
Did you know that for years there has been a class about “The Yiddish Novel”? This course is an absolute gem that is available free to all HBT members, and for a slight fee to guests. This group, led by Rabbi Edward Goldfarb, meets each Wednesday morning at 11 AM to 12 noon. The format is simple: the efficient Rabbi distributes copies of Yiddish texts of a well-known author. He reads a sentence or paragraph of the text, followed by its transliteration into English, and continues in that manner to the end of the hour. Comments or questions in English are welcome as we proceed through the literature.
The participants vary in degrees of Yiddish expertise, including one linguistics scholar who just loves the sound of Yiddish and all the nuances about this language. Another participant grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household and is well versed in Yiddish and occasionally reads a Yiddish novel and enjoys the Hebrew explanations, the transliterations, and the congeniality of the class. Another class participant, who’s “Mama Loshen” was Yiddish, loves the idioms! He recalls his Dad as a distinguished Yiddish writer and certainly enjoys all the Rabbi offers including commentary in English.
One participant told me that although she lives at a great distance from HBT, she looks forward to Wednesday mornings and this class. She very much appreciates this opportunity to study Yiddish as she misses her parents with whom she conversed in Yiddish. Further, she mentioned what a bonus it is that we have from Rabbi Ed who is able to explain the connection of the Hebrew to certain Yiddish words.
As for the others in the class, we follow along as the Rabbi reads, but our lack of mastery is no deterrent. Everyone understands, and sometimes a spouse or two is present and follows along in English.
I have been attending this class for almost two decades! At that time, the Board Room was filled on both sides of the table with attendees. Now the group is a smaller but solid core and we find this literature still relevant and challenging! I know that each participant looks forward to this Wednesday morning class, and feels the disappointment when the Rabbi, on the odd occasion, has to cancel because of pressing professional responsibilities.
My motivation for this loyalty over the past many years is that I wish to preserve and improve my basic knowledge of Yiddish since I find this language to be still quite dynamic with amazing idioms! What I have maintained I do not wish to lose, even though I use Yiddish infrequently. I also quite enjoy the literature of the Yiddish authors.
My maternal grandparents, Roza and Abraham Hornstein, arrived in Montreal separately from Romania in 1885 and after a few years of acclimatization to the new city, were married in Old Montreal’s old Beth David synagogue on Chenneville Street in 1890. My Mom was born in Montreal and my Dad in Philadelphia. We always spoke English at home, as well as to my cousins and great aunt, a hearty octogenarian! If the occasion demanded it, my parents would speak in Yiddish for me not to understand, and many years later, my husband and I did the same with our own children as well!
I believe I absorbed Yiddish from my maternal grandparents through osmosis when we visited them weekly, or when we stayed with them in their country cottage on summer vacations from school many decades ago! I also attended a few years of formal after-school Yiddish. As the years went by I kept up a serendipitous exposure to Yiddish in my birthplace, Montreal. I welcomed each opportunity for exposure by attending some Yiddish programmes sponsored by that magnificent city Librarian, Eleanor London.
Among some of the classics we have read together in the Yiddish class at HBT are:
Di Aguna, & Di Mama’s Shabbossim by Chaim Grade;
Di Brider Ashkenazi and Di Familia Karnovski, by Joshua J. Singer.
The latter Singer text is our current and soon to be completed novel. The class continues to enjoy studying Yiddish literature, and dearly hopes that Rabbi Ed will continue with us another year! He is to be congratulated for taking this initiative. Each one of us is extremely grateful to him for offering this enriching and most enjoyable experience!
Hopefully, the Rabbi will continue this course either this summer or in the Fall. Should that be the case, I urge and encourage all those with an interest in reading or learning Yiddish literature to come and participate in this truly underappreciated gem of an offering!