An American in Berlin
18 August, 2019
Schlepping Goles Edition
So as some of you know, I recently completed a week long intensive Yiddish language class. It was part of larger, month long cultural program called Yiddish Summer in Weimar.1 And omg you guys, did I love the ever-loving shit out of it. And I’ll tell you all about it. But first, a bit of background.
As I’ve written about previously, I’ve spent the better part of the last year methodically working through a Yiddish grammar book. Which I finished literally the week before the class started, btw. In addition to that, I had also started reading articles in Yiddish in The Forward (or Der Forvarts, if you prefer), which is a newspaper/magazine out of New York that still publishes weekly in Yiddish.
All of that was proceeding nicely, if slowly. But as the course drew nearer, I started to worry that I had literally zero contact with the spoken language. I mean, sure, I have a small vocabulary of assorted words and phrases dating back to my childhood. But that’s a far cry from being able to speak, to understand.
So I started digging around to see if there were any podcasts that might help with this. And I discovered that there’s a weekly, hour-long radio program out of Boston, entirely in Yiddish. Tchikave.2 (That means ‘interesting’). So I downloaded an episode and sort of held my breath, you know? Like, what am I actually getting myself into here?
Anyway, I hit play. And you know what? I fucking understood that shit! Like, 90%. First time listening to real, spoken Yiddish and it’s just like, I got this! Now, to be fair, speaking German is a huge leg up. Yiddish is classed as a Germanic language, after all, with roughly 80% of the vocab being straight up teitsch– German. And while it stems from a different dialect than what predominates in modern Germany, and while it’s like 1000 years old on top of that, it’s nonetheless quite accessible. And where it differs from modern German in grammar, syntax and vocabulary, well, my grammar book and readings had prepared me pretty well for all that.
So in the span of one hour, I went from fearing that I would be way over my head in this Yiddish course (I signed up for the intermediate level class), to being like, “I fucking got this!” That was a pretty great feeling. And that was just the beginning.
Right, so the class itself. What a joy. The format was as follows. 10am-1pm with one teacher, Khayele. And then 3pm-6pm with a different teacher, Mendi. That’s six hours a day of class time, if you’re counting at home.
The morning teacher, Khayele, is this tiny little old lady who is also a total spitfire. And straight off the bat, she’s just talking Yiddish. No English, no German. She speaks English with a rather posh British accent. She knows just enough German to know the mistakes it causes in Yiddish, but she doesn’t speak the language. So there were times when she would resort to English for a definition or a short explanation. And she might shut down something you said with a headshake and the words “That’s German.” But really, she just spoke to us only in Yiddish.
And it was fine. I mean, I’m sitting there listening to a person speaking Yiddish to me for the first time in my life, and I’m just fucking getting it, you guys. But more than that, I love listening to it. I love just hearing it. Because even though it’s mostly German, it doesn’t feellike German. The rhythm and the melody of the language are totally different.
Different from German, but totally familiar. There’s a word for this. The word is heymish. It’s hard to translate the full force of it. The root is heym, “home.” So it means something like, “feels like home; cozy; warm; comfortable; familiar; full of love.” Heymishis somehow all of those things at once.
What I mean is, as soon as I heard her speak, I realized that I’d been hearing Yiddish my whole life. Just with English words. Her rhythm, her melody, the words she chose to accent in a sentence, all of that kinda stuff. I mean, she speaks Yiddish the way my dad speaks English. Like, I literally felt at times like I was listening to my father speak.
It was the same with Mendi, btw. He speaks a different dialect, with a different accent. But that rhythm, that melody, the rise and fall, it’s all the same. It just sounds and feels like home. In a way that German never does or can. S’iz geven a machaya. It was a pleasure.
So that’s the listening side of things. Speaking though, whoa. That was a mindfuck, in the beginning. It was a mindfuck because it required a total re-writing of mental pathways I’ve spent the last 3+ years in Germany writing. Changes in pronunciation of the most basic words, changes in word order and sentence structure.
Perhaps counterintuitively, the easiest part was adding in all the loshen-koydishe verter, all the Hebrew and Aramaic words. Because, really, that was just a matter of dropping in new vocabulary. This actually creates new problems now that I have to switch back to speaking German all the time. But I’ll come back to that later.
In any case, the first two or three days were pretty rough going, in terms of speaking. But we all got the hang of it sooner or later. And by the end, we were all kibitzingandschmoozing with each other outside of class. Which, I mean, so much fun.
Anyway, they called it an “intermediate” class. But man, that was some kind of intermediate. I mean, yeah there was some basic language instruction. And Khayele particularly spent time on tog-tegliche leben conversational stuff, the stuff you use in every day life. Which was as fun as it was necessary. But we also read a lot of poetry, literature and even songs. We did some of that with Khayele, but that was really Mendi’s side of things. Especially the songs.
Mendi, man. This guy is one of a kind. Whereas Khayele is very much an academic, Mendi is definitely very much not. And where Khayele is super secular, Mendi is…well, also secular. But secular in that old school Jewish secular way. The way where you don’t keep kosher or regularly observe Shabbos, but you also know all the prayers and are steeped in the traditions.
So with Mendi we read a bunch of poetry and literature. And like I said, songs. Which was weird on the first day. Like, right from the get, he’s just “OK, lomir zingen.” Let’s sing. And it’s like, uh, what? I think it took us out of our comfort zone a bit in the beginning. But by the end of the week, we were all singing along, full throatedly.
In any case, the course itself was a huge success. Between the two of them, we got a ton of culture, built up our listening skills and learned to speak the language rather well. Now, obviously, “rather well” is open to interpretation. So I’ll come back to that.
But the language course was just one part of this whole thing. Every night there were what I’ll call “formal” performances. In other words, events – usually concerts – which required buying tickets, were open to the public and held in a large theatre. I skipped all but one of those. Mostly because I needed that time to get away from people and also to catch a nap.
That’s not a knock on my classmates, btw. They were honestly all fantastic, and many of them were kindred spirits. I plan/hope to stay in touch with at least a couple of them. But more on that later. The point is – and I said this to them – we’re together six hours a day in class, plus lunch and dinner and then again for the cabarets (more on that to come!). How do you people do this? I was loving every second of it. But, personally, I was also at the limits of my social interaction skills. So I was skipping the concerts to get some alone time, which usually took the form of a nap.
Ah, but after the concerts…the cabarets. Friends, these were emes chanoya, truly proper fun. Mendi MC’d these events, which were held in a little coffee house. I’ve never really been to a ‘cabaret’ before, so I don’t know if this is the standard. But basically, it was just a lot of singing, dancing and drinking.
Mendi sang a bunch of tunes just with an accompanying piano. But it was open to anybody and everybody. But we’re talking Klezmer here. Because while we were doing a language class, there were also music classes. So those students got up and did various Klezmer tunes. It was all great.
On the first night, I just sorta hung out in the back with some of my classmates and drank and observed. That all changed, though, on the second day, when Akiva showed up. And so now, I gotta make a little detour and talk about my new friend Akiva.
So on the second day, this tiny little dude sporting a huge jew-fro with a yarmulke pinned to it shows up in class. And he’s just this little ball of energy and positivity. In other words, the sort of person I normally struggle to tolerate.
Except, this guy is so earnest and so warm and so kind and enthusiastic. I mean, it’s like he danced his way out of some old folktale and into our classroom. And he was really the only religious person in our group. Out of fifteen or so people, maybe ten were Jewish. And of those, none of us are observant.
Then there’s this kid, with the Yeshiva education. Shomer Shabbos, davening three times a day, keeping kosher, citing Talmud, the whole nine. And he’s from Boston. But hey, nobody’s perfect. Anyway, we hit it off straight away. It helped that he had brought a harmonica with him, and I had my guitar. So on the breaks, we were always popping out for a quick jam. But there was also a bit of a brother vibe there. Because he’s 22 and I’m, achem, not.
Anyway, dude shows up to cabaret, and all he wants to do is dance. And he’s like dragging me into the circle dances and shit. Which, anybody who’s ever been to a wedding or a bar mitzvah with me knows, is not really my thing. But hey, the beer is flowing, the Klezmer is playing, and my little folktale friend is just lighting the place up. So why the fuck not?
And that’s when it hit me. I was supposedto be there. I mean, I’ve gotten so used to being the only Jew in my circle here. The only Jew in my world, really. Erm, I said “gotten used to,” but that’s not quite right. I’m not used to it. It’s very lonely, in fact. I have a world of references, a treasury of vocabulary, a life of experiences, all of which mean nothing to nobody here. I read Torah. But I read Torah alone, holed up in my room. It’s lonely being Jewish in Berlin. And I’m not “used to it.” But I have accepted it.
Anyway, all of a sudden, I’m in a circle dance, listening to Klezmer, people are speaking and singing Yiddish all around me. And it’s just, hang on, I belonghere. I’m not lonely here. I was gonna say, it felt like a weight had been lifted. But that’s not quite right. Better to say, I felt like I could put down my burden for a few minutes.
You may have noticed that the subtitle of this post is “Schlepping Goles Edition.” ‘Goles’ is the term for diaspora, although also with the stronger/sadder force of “exile.” And for the handful of goyim reading this, “schlepp” means something like “carry a heavy burden.” And that term, “goles schleppen” showed up in one of the poems we read.
And as soon as I read it, it resonated with me. It hit me hard. Because it described for me, in two words, all that I’ve been feeling here. Exile is not something you live. It’s something you carry. On your back. Every minute of every day.
Now, traditionally, goles schleppenis meant with respect to Isreal. The Jewish diaspora and exile from our ancestral home. That aspect of it doesn’t get very far with me. For whatever reason, I’ve never felt any great connection with die heylige medinah, eretz ha’koydesh, Israel. But Berlin, at least from a Jewish perspective, is a sort of Babylonian exile. Only, from New York, not from Israel. What I mean is, you can live and prosper in this land. You have the freedom to be Jewish. But it is not, and never will be, home. Your family, your friends, your community, your history; they’re all somewhere else.
All to say, I’m at these cabarets, and I’m drinking and dancing and singing. And I’m going around in a circle, holding hands with the person on my right and the person on my left, and I’m just smiling. And I just had this moment of, omg, I can finally put down the goles. Even if it’s just for a few minutes. You can’t put a price on that.
Also, the lads from our class performed. Man, this was the fucking tits, you guys. Seven of us in total, I think. We did Somewhere over the Rainbow. In Yiddish, obviously. Side note, and I did not know this. Whoever wrote the lyrics to Somewhere over the Rainbow was Jewish, and apparently the song is quite intentionally a metaphor for Israel. The Holy Land isthe somewhere over the rainbow land. That was news to me.
Anyway, Akiva and me worked up a really nice intro with the harmonica and guitar. Then we all got to singing. But wait, there’s more. Mendi procured two people from the Klezmer class to play with us; a fiddle player and a clarinetist. So they each took a solo in the middle of the song. It was really fucking special, y’all. Somewhere there’s a video, but I haven’t got my hands on it yet.
Also, the clarinetist was this (super-pretty-not-that-it-matters) French girl. So I chatted with her for all of two minutes. At first, I just wanted a chance to talk a little French. Which, you know, fine. But then we switched to Yiddish. And just, wow. Friends. Yiddish with a French accent. It may be the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard. And then I asked her what her name was. “Leah,” she said. This Genesis-old name, with a French accent. Out of a mouth that makes the clarinet sing in the key of Klezmer.
My little friend Akiva may have danced his way out of some old folktale. But this dame was like one of those messengers in Genesis, where you’re never really sure if they’re humans or angels. Loshen-koydeshmeans something like “the sacred tongue.” And as I said, it traditionally refers to Hebrew, and to a lesser extent, Aramaic. But for me, the emeser loshen-koydesh– the true sacred tongue – is Yiddish with a French accent. Just, wow.
Tellya what was really beautiful though. After the cabarets, we would spill out of the coffee house and onto the street, to make our ways to our various accommodations. And in the dark of night, in the still of small-town Weimar, we would speak Yiddish, all the way home. Yiddish af der gas. Yiddish on the street.
It was beautiful, but it was also bittersweet. Because, like, it wasn’t real, you know? We were all there for this festival/course/thingy. So it’s an illusion, right? I mean, it’s real, insofar as it’s happening. But this doesn’t exist anywhere in the real world. Like, where’s the place where you can party all night and then just bullshit in Yiddish in the streets as you walk home?
You know, on the one hand, it was some kind of powerful. What I mean is, you felt connected with your ancestors somehow. Like, maybe, over a hundred years ago, my parents’ great grandparents were also spilling out of some tavern, and just yakking away in Yiddish as they marched drunkenly aheym. And in that sense, it was an emese simcha, a true joy.
But it was also some kind of heartbreaking. Like, in a few days, we would all disperse back to our respective cities and countries. And then there would be no opportunity for this. In a few days, I’d have to pick that golesback up again and get back to schlepping.
As long as I was there, though, I tried to push those thoughts away and just enjoy it. And I think I did a pretty good job of that. Yeah, it hit me pretty hard when I got back to Berlin. But while I was there, I loved the shit out of it. I forget where our how it came up, but in reviewing my notes from class, I found that I’d scrawled the following sentence into my notebook: ich hob gefunen an oytzer af der velt. It means something like, “I’ve found a treasure in the world.” Well yeah, I have.
I have so much more to say about all this. And perhaps I’ll return to it in future posts. Like, I want to talk about the teaching styles of Khayele and Mendi. Both for how it relates to my own teaching style, and what I learned and observed from them. And also to talk about what they both did for me on a more personal level.
This whole experience also got me thinking about what I’m doing with my life, and, more to the point, what I shouldbe doing with my life. But there’s no way I’m getting into that now. So what I’d like to do, is end this on a positive note. Which I will. But before I do, there’s another sadness that came out of this, that I’d like to briefly touch on. And that’s do with a girl.
I should recognize a good omen when I see one. What happened was, I had received some wrong information about where exactly our class was being held. And the only other person to receive the same wrong info was this madel. With the result that the two of us showed up over 45 minutes late on the first day, while everybody else was on time.
And in the course of this being in the wrong place-being lost business, we, well, maybe ‘bonded’ is too strong a word, but I mean, we definitely developed something there. And over the first few days, we were getting on pretty well.
But see, I’d had this idea in my head that maybe, just maybe, I might meet a nice Jewish girl at this thing. And this girl was definitely not. She was very German. In fact, we only spoke German for that first hour or so before we got to class. So yeah, we got on pretty well. But a lot of good that does, when you’re sort of pre-disposing yourself to meet a Jewish girl.
For context, on the first day, she showed up straight off the train. By which I mean, she’s slumming it in her travel clothes, schlepping a giant backpack and just looking the part of the weary traveler, you know? Day two, though, that was a different story. Because by that point, she’d a good night’s sleep, a shower and a change of clothes. And by change of clothes, I mean gray pencil skirt and black sweater. I kinda had to pick my jaw up off the table. Like, no way this is the same broad, right?
Oh, and also, she’s interested in Yiddish, speaks Polish, and is doing a Ph.D. So she’s clearly got a brain. And I’ll take a brain over legs any day. But she’s got both. Or is it all three? Nevermind. Point is, gorgeous and brilliant.
So now I’m going to give what I think any normal red-blooded male would say in this situation:
Hmm. I seemed to have developed some kind of rapport with this young woman yesterday. This young woman, who is as smart as she is pretty and who is also interested in my culture and this language I’m trying to learn. Let me bend heaven and earth to try and make something of this.
And now, I’m going to give you what this idiot said:
Like, what the actual fuck is wrong with me? Anyway, to make a long story short, I think there may have been an opportunity. I think she may have had interest. I mean, I’m notoriously bad at reading these things. So maybe it’s all in my imagination anyway. But I think all this in hindsight. In the moment, I was horrifically oblivious, and if there was a chance, I missed it. And after I missed it, it was too late. Because she was clearly done with me at that point; at least on that level. I think. Like I said, maybe I’m making this all up.
But if this really happened, if I really fucked this up, well, I didn’t realize how tremendously I’d fucked up until the last day. Because on the last day, Mendi made us a Shabbos Kiddush party. With wine and kugel and all kinds of foods. And he explained the week’s parsha– Torah portion – in Yiddish. And we sang songs and did the prayers. Hell, I even did the brucha– the prayer – for the candles.
To digress but a moment, this was so great. It was Shabbos, it was a Kiddush, but it was somehow secular. What I mean is, it was more about the tradition than the belief. Like, this is what wedo. This is what we’ve always done. It doesn’t matter if you believe in God. It doesn’t matter if you go to schul. We’re Jews. We celebrate the shit out of the Sabbath, and we have a good time doing it. Traditionnnnn….Tradition!
But back to the madel. She was all in on it. In fact, she was all in on the Jewish stuff (as opposed to the language stuff) the whole time. She sat next to me for most of the class. And she was always asking questions about this word, or that prophet, or some or other Jewish thing. Just really keen to learn, you know?
Anyway, at the Kiddush, Mendi needed something done. Maybe with the lights, I don’t remember. Whatever it was, it was something you’re not supposed to do on Shabbos. And she just throws her hand up in the air and is like, “Do you need a Shabbos-goy?”3 And in that moment, I was just like, “Oh, hang on, this girl is amazing.”
Like, I’d had my head so far up my own ass about meeting a “Jewish girl.” Which, yes, is important to me. But it’s not a deal-breaker. Never has been. What is important to me, what is a deal-breaker, is having somebody with whom I can be myself; somebody with whom I can not just pursue this part of my life, but actually share it with.
I mean, I don’t know how this whole Torah thing works with somebody who has zero interest in the whole “Jewish thing.” Like, hey, just so you know, I need at least an hour a day, three days a week to study Torah. It would be kind of disappointing if whoever-she-is is just, “Sure, you go do your thing,” in the same way she might say that about playing video games with my friends.
Meanwhile, here’s this girl – brilliant and with the legs (not that they matter) – who’s showing a genuine interest in all this. Which is not to say she’d have any interest in actually reading with me. But at least that she’d appreciate it in a way that would matter.
And I could only put all this together after it was too late? Because sometimes, Davey, you’re afucking idiot.
So much for girls. I said I wanted to end on a positive note. So here it is. And you know what? Let’s make it two.
At the end of the course, I was talking with one of my classmates and we were talking about what we could do to not lose what we’d just learned, and, if anything, even progress a bit. So we hit on the plan of trying to organize a skype to do some reading. The plan is to start with some of the texts we received in class but didn’t actually get around to reading. So we would prepare a text, meet on skype, schmooze a bit in Yiddish and discuss the text. It hasn’t happened yet. But we’re still talking and planning. So if we can pull it off, that would be pretty wonderful.
The other thing is, my boy Akiva was in Berlin for a few days after the course ended. So we met each other for dinner. Which was fun on the merits. Good food, good drinks, good company. But also, we sat in a restaurant in Berlin and spoke nothing but Yiddish for three hours. And I couldn’t have been happier.
He too has expressed interest in some kind of reading group. Which would be grand. Azoi, mir vellen zen. So, we’ll see. But both of these guys are people I would be well pleased to have in my life going forward. And if we can read and talk in Yiddish too? I’m ready to call that a big win.
I’ll have more to say about this if it actually pans out. But until then…
- Weimar, of course, being a city in central-east Germany. [↩]
- I’ve chosen to transliterate all the Yiddish words in this post into the Latin alphabet. Partly because I’m pretty sure nobody reading this can read Yiddish as it’s normally written, in the alef-beys, the Hebrew letters. But mostly because typing in Yiddish on this machine is a godsdamned pain in the ass. [↩]
- Shabbos-goy is the term for a person Jewish people hire to perform necessary tasks which we ourselves our not allowed to perform on the Sabbath. [↩]