An American in Berlin
26 August, 2019
OK, so I think this is gonna be a short one. See, I’ve got like two or three unpublished posts in the pipeline. It’s just that I haven’t had time to proofread and edit them. And by “proofread and edit,” of course, I simply mean, give them a sober once-over. Which is probably what I should be doing now.
Except that, today (Saturday), I had my first post-Weimar Yiddish experience. I mentioned in that post that I had made plans to meet with one of the guys on Skype1 to do some reading and have a bit of schmooze. So that was today. But before I get into that, I should probably introduce this “one of the guys.”
That would be a Polish goy by the name of Bartek. Actually, I’m pretty sure his name is whatever the unpronounceable-unspellable Polish version of Bartholomew is. But in Weimar, everybody got a Yiddish name, and those were the only names we used. So he’s Bartek. And for the record, I’m Dovid (yes, with an ‘o’),2 or sometimes Dovidl, which is the diminutive.3
Two things about Bartek. First, he’s just a lovely human being. You know, one of those genuinely warm and kind mutherfuckers. Also, he’s a total language whiz, or Sprachgenie. And look, I know some of you think I have some kind of knack for languages. I’ve never thought that. I just find them fascinating and apply myself. But nothing about language comes natural to me. And to the extent that some things come to me a little easier, I put that down to experience rather than any innate skill.
But this guy. Sheesh. He goes to polyglot conferences. Hell, he’s Turkey right now. Just cos he wants to learn Turkish. And the only book he brought is a Turkish-Arabic phrase book. (Yes, he speaks Arabic). And he’s just all, “Yeah, I’m basically gonna work backwards from the Arabic and just try to listen to people and put myself out there.” You know, the way nature intended.
Anyway, this is the guy I was reading with today. As for the text, we picked to two short poems by Itzik Manger. One was about Esther getting ready to see the king; so a Purim story. And the other was about Rachel and Leah and how they both loved the same guy.4
We prepared the texts in advance. Which means we did the work of looking up the words we didn’t know (if we could find them; which was not always the case) and reading through the poems a few times to try and get a basic understanding. Needless to say, poetry in foreign languages is not always the easiest thing. So that was kind of the starting point.
Naturally, he calls me up from a café somewhere in Turkey. And I’m like, “Are you sure it’s OK to speak Yiddish in public over there?” And he’s just like, “If anybody hears me, they’ll probably just think it’s German anyway.” Fair point.
So the little video window opens up, and there’s Bartek. “Vos hert sich?” he says. The Yiddish “What’s up?” To which the answer is, of course, “Vos zol sich hern?” “Up? What should be up?” And from there, a bit of catching up before getting down to business.
Ah, the business. Now this is the shit that I love. First, I should explain that each poem tells a narrative story. And the poems themselves are divided into four line strophes, or stanzas. So we would take turns reading a strophe out loud. Then we’d go back over it and deal the vocab word by word before finally coming to some kind of agreement on what the whole thing meant.
As I mentioned, the vocab was not always easy. Neither of us have access to a top-notch dictionary at the moment,5 so we were both working with second rate resources. Add to that, Yiddish was standardized pretty late in the game, so the same word can be spelled in a variety of different ways. And finally, it’s poetry. So sometimes words are used metaphorically in ways that are not immediately obvious. Sometimes words are straight up invented for a one-time use.
But even just this process – trying to determine what a given word might mean – was fascinating. Sometimes only one of us found a definition. Sometimes each of us found a different definition. Sometimes he’d know a word from Polish or modern Hebrew; and yes he also speaks Modern Hebrew. Or I might recognize something as being similar to an obscure-ish English word. Or we might both recognize something that looked German. And yes, he also speaks German and English.
And, you know, sometimes you just have to settle. Like, there was this one word ‘lak.’ And the sentence was something like, “and he gave her shoes of lak.” The best we could do there was to say, “Right, well, it’s obviously something nice and something you can make shoes out of.” Well, you can’t win ‘em all. At least not without a better dictionary.
As for what the poems actually fucking mean…well. We had some good discussions there. I mean, there was a lot of, “OK, the way I read it, it means xyz. What do you think?” “Oh, that’s interesting. I had read it as abc.” And then you present your argument. Sometimes I convinced him. Sometimes he convinced me. Other times, we just sort of agreed that both readings were possible.
And all this is happening in Yiddish, btw. I mean, at times we would re-state things in English, just to avoid confusion. But really, we were discussing the texts in Yiddish. And just, that was so much fun, you know? I mean, this kinda shit is fun anyway, right? Like, this is what I do with Phil, my professor, with Greek. So it’s a good time regardless. This is my jam. But to be able to do it with Yiddish texts, inYiddish? Achievement unlocked.
All told, we chatted for like 2.5 hours. And at the end, we were both pretty well overjoyed. Beyond the obvious fun-ness of the whole thing, we both also walked away from it with a very strong feeling of, “Shit, I understand these texts so much more than before we spoke!” Which, of course, was the fucking point of it all anyway.
So where do we go from here? Well, Akivele is super keen to get in on this reading group business. He didn’t join us today, obvi, bc Shabbos. But he’s already picked a new text for us; by the same author, as it happens.
Interpolation: This has nothing to do with anything, but. As I’m writing, I’m listening to the first Diamond Head album. This is a band that made, I think, a grand total of two albums. And in the big picture, their biggest contribution to metal is their influence on Metallica, which could not ever have been Metallica without them.6 In fact, I’m pretty sure Metallica has covered literally every song from that first Diamond Head album.
And with good reason. It’s what I call “internally perfect.” What I mean is, as a complete whole, it cannot be improved upon in any way. If you changed any aspect of it, even in the slightest, it could only be worse. That’s not say there aren’t “better” albums. Albums with a couple of true classic hits, or superior production. But even better albums have that one track you don’t love. Or the production could be better. Or whatever. Not so this album. Every song, every note, every sound, it’s all as perfect as it could possibly be. How many albums can you say that about? It really is something special, that first Diamond Head album. :End Interpolation.
Anyway. Going forward with the Yiddish stuff. Bartek and I agreed that we could probably manage this amount of text and two hours of discussion once a week or so. For now, at least. So that’s the plan. And I’m super jazzed about it. Plus, it’ll be great to get Akiva in on the action.
Two thoughts on all this, and then I’ll wrap up. Cos like I said, this is gonna be a short one. The first thought is not a new one. But how fucking lucky am I to meet people like this, to have people like this in my life? I mean, if I had gone to this Weimar Yiddish thing a different week, or a different year, I wouldn’t have met these bochayrim, these fellas. It’s pretty amazing.
And look, there’s no way of knowing how long these people will be in my life. Akiva is in the states, Bartek lives in Poland. But for however long it lasts, it’s a fucking win. I mean, I know people will say you’re probably gonna meet interesting people wherever you go, whatever you do. That is, it’s self-selecting on some level. You are who you are, and as such, you’re going to meet like-minded people.
But it always feels so random, so down to chance. Anne, Joschka, Vinny, Charlotte, Esma,7 and so many others. And now these two. But always in the back of mind, there’s this sense of, “Damn, you know, if just one little thing had gone differently, you never woulda met this or that clown.” I may not always be lucky. Lucky in love, I sure as shit ain’t. But this kind of luck? I just keep coming up aces. And I’ll never not be thankful for that.
Second Interpolation: The Diamond Head album has ended, on this playlist I’m listening to, and now the first Def Leppard album is playing. And look, I’m not – broadly speaking – a fan of that band. Way to cheesy, poppy, whatever you want to say. But the first album is so different from everything that would come after. It’s very much a NWOBHM album. And all things NWOBHM have a very special place in my heart. But really, it’s a very very good record. Not as good as the Diamond Head, mind you. But good enough to be on the same playlist.8 :End Second Interpolation.
I said I wanted to end with two thoughts. The first was how lucky I am with the people I meet. The second…umm, I got distracted by the Def Leppard. And now I’ve forgotten. But I thinkwhat I wanted to say was, just how bloody well pleased I am to have an opportunity to speak Yiddish. Like, it just makes me happy, you know? It just feels right.
Akiva put me in touch with this Jewish couple in Berlin. The husband and wife, they’re both rabbis. And every week, they host a Shabbos dinner. So I went Friday. And it was great. Which, that’s an entire post to itself. But just to say, there were 12 people at this shindig. And with twelve people, there were a lot of languages on offer. English, German, Russian, Hebrew, Spanish, Italian. But not one Yiddish speaker in the bunch.
So even in a situation where it’s like, omg finally, other Jews in Berlin! Still, not one person with whom I can kibitz in Yiddish. Which only serves to emphasize both how lucky I am to have met Bartek and Akiva, and how truly grateful I am for that. Because those guys are giving me something that I don’t just want, but something which I really kinda need at this point.
Put it another way. I’ve decided to make reading Torah something central to my life. But like, not cos I enjoyit, you know? I mean, there are times when I do enjoy it, of course. There’s a certain sense of peace that comes with reading Torah with a beer and my pipe. Which, granted, is probably not what Moishe Rabeynuhad in mind. But it’s a time to shut out the world, and think and study and learn. Cheesy, I know. The truth is though, I do it in large part out of a sense of responsibility. Like, ich bin nicht keyn gleybiker. I don’t believe in God, per se. I don’t keep kosher or observe the Sabbath. I mean, I’m generally breaking most of the first four commandments.9
But I’ve come to the opinion that, if I’m going to actively identify myself as Jewish, if that’s going to be important to me – and I do, and it is – then I need to act on that. And if I’m serious about that – and I am – then, if nothing else, I should know the Torah. Because without Torah, who are we? What are we?
So I read – I hesitate to say “study,” because that’s so freighted a word in this context – but I read Torah, as I say, more from a sense of responsibility than anything else. It’s a mitzvah. Maybe themitzvah, I dunno. When I was growing up, my mother used the word ‘mitzvah’ to mean “a good deed.” Like, if you help an old lady cross the street, you’ve done a mitzvah.
But really, the word ‘mitzvah’ means “commandment.” Something, in other words, you mustdo, because The Big G commands it. And that seems to carry the sense of, “Yeah, dude, it’s a fucking burden, I get that. But it’s a burden with rewards. That’s why y’all mutherfuckers are my chosen peeps.” I paraphrase, of course.
To put it another way, I guess, I do it to feel connected with my people. Yeah, it’s a burden. I mean, it’s real work. Setting aside an hour-plus a day, three days a week. Every fucking week of the year. Anyway, it’s more responsibility than fun, was the point of this whole fucking detour.
But Yiddish. That’s fun. Just plain fun. There’s no responsibility there. Unless you wanna get super meta and somehow wrap it into honoring your parents and grandparents and your family’s heritage, and all that jazz. And yeah, that’s in there. It’s very much in there.
But at the end of the day, dude, it’s just fucking fun. And fun in way that touches my heart and shit. Like, I’m just fucking happy when I’m chatting away in Yiddish. To the point even where it’s working its way into my German. But that’s for another post. One of those aforementioned written-but-as-yet-unedited posts, btw.
So lemme end this already-too-long post with a little dedication to Bartek and Akiva. A sheynem dank, fellas. A dankfor coming into my life and being generally awesome. But also for giving me an opportunity to speak some Yiddish. Y’all don’t know what it means to me.
- In the event, it was actually WhatsApp. [↩]
- Or a qometz-alef, if you spelled it out phonetically in Yiddish. Which you wouldn’t, because it’s a Hebrew word/name, and loshen-koydishe verterdon’t get spelled phonetically, they get spelled Hebraically; in other words, without vowels. [↩]
- Apparently, Dovidl is how the Hassids call DVDs. A little DVD is a dvdl, or dovidl. [↩]
- And both married the same guy. Because Torah? [↩]
- I’ve ordered one – well, two actually – but they haven’t arrived yet. [↩]
- One of the guys from Metallica once said, “There are more great riffs in one Diamond Head song than on the first four Sabbath albums combined.” That should tell you everything you need to know. [↩]
- Esma, my former student, is “the Turkish girl” from previous posts. It’s time a put a name to her. [↩]
- Also on this playlist are Motörhead’s “Bomber” album, which fits perfectly with the other two. And also AC/DC’s “Razor’s Edge.” Which fits less perfectly. But hey, it’s my playlist, bitches. [↩]
- The whole ‘graven images’ thing is pretty easily avoided. As for the other six, I can generally manage to honor my parents, not to murder, steal, commit adultery or covet shit what ain’t mine. Generally. [↩]