An American in Berlin

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  See, I’ve got like two or three unpublished posts in the pipeline.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 Skype ((In the event, it was actually WhatsApp.)) 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’), ((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.)) or sometimes Dovidl, which is the diminutive. ((Apparently, Dovidl is how the Hassids call DVDs.  A little DVD is a dvdl, or dovidl.))

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. ((And both married the same guy.  Because Torah?))

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, ((I’ve ordered one – well, two actually – but they haven’t arrived yet.)) 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. ((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.))  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, ((Esma, my former student, is “the Turkish girl” from previous posts.  It’s time a put a name to her.)) 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. ((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.))  :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. ((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.))

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.

זײַ געסונט

An American in Berlin

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. ((Weimar, of course, being a city in central-east Germany.))  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. ((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.))  (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:

Meh.  Shixa.

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?” ((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.))  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…

זײַ געזונט

Word Play

Write.  Write when you have something to say.  But also, write when you have nothing to say.  Who knows what might fall out of your fingers?  Or run off your fingers?  Or, making your fingers the subject, who knows what they might…what is the present tense of wrought?  Is it wright? As in ‘playwright.’  Or ‘wainwright,’ if you prefer wagons to the theatre.  In which case, your fingers can both write and wright.  But your ears surely won’t know the difference, even if your eyes do. In other words, you can see what has been written, whereas you can hear what’s been wrought?  

For that something be written, one first must write.  For that something be bitten, one first must bite.  Yet one can also bite what has been bought.  But only because it’s a tad rude to bite what has been stolen. Though, in times of need, one might steal, that one may bite.  But one certainly wouldn’t want to bite steel.  

If a community has but one bicycle, to be shared by all, is it a common wheel for the common weal? And suppose this community should be by the sea, on whose shores dwell plump, seagoing mammals.  And suppose they should make such a mammal the symbol of their land.  Would they have their national seal upon their national seal?

Suppose further that the commerce of such a place was built upon the trade in these animal hides. Then must they sell seals.  Unless business were bad.  Then seldom would a seal be sold.  Or so I’ve been told.

For that something be told, one first must tell.  Well, I’ve heard tell of a bell, courageous in winter.  That is to say, bold against the cold.  Yet if that bell should, after many a year, come lose and plummet to earth, you must tell that it fell.  Though it would never be told that it fold, no matter how old.

Suppose then, that there were two bells.  The one which was built the first must be the elder, yet could it never itself be eld. And if this be true of bells, so must it be with berries.  Yet what is younger than an elderberry?  The cran, the rasp and the straw, to be sure.  

Now suppose you have a tisket, at tasket, a little yellow basket of strawberries.  And suppose you drop your basket, and the fruit thereof scatters hither and thither.  Your former strawberries would now be strewnberries.  Amusing perhaps, but not half so clever as Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury. Which thankfully still runs. Though when it eventually ends, must, of necessity, become Donesbury.

So long as it runs, it is Doonesbury.  And when it runs no more, it shall be Donesbury. But in hindsight, shall we say that so long as it ran it was Dansbury?  Which sounds like a town in Connecticut.  A place where, I think you’ll agree, manners are highly esteemed. In other words, the name of the the game in Connecticut is etiquette.  

That a male should conduct himself with proper etiquette, he is said to display good manners.  May we then conclude that for a female to do likewise, she would display good womanners?  In any case, etiquette in Connecticut.  But what is of prime importance further north?  That is to say, what’s the main thing in Maine?  

Whatever question one might ask in Maine, there’s only ever one answer.  “You can’t get there from here.”  It’s all you ever hear.  Or so I’ve heard.  I mean, of course, the past tense of hear; that’s ‘heard.’  Not to be confused with many a cow, which is, naturally, a herd. Whereas ‘flock’ is the word for many a bird.  Which, you must admit, is rather absurd.  

Ah, see the bird take wing. It flies.  Flies, however, are a nuisance.  But if we speak of yesterday, they both flew.  And indeed have flown many times afore.  The bird has wings, as does the fly, and so they fly.  The airplane has wings but no mind of its own, and so it is flown.  The leaf has neither wings nor mind of its own, and so, it is not flown but blown.  

And the leaf was blown because, of course, the wind blew.  Although the sky was blue.  ‘Tis true! And that which is true, must then be truth.  But the one who speaks many true things does not speak treeth, whether his mouth have but one tooth or many teeth.  

Suppose now that the one who says true things should inhabit but one tiny room.  Then the one who speaks truth lives in a booth.  Whereupon would we do well to name his abode The Sooth Booth. Let us suppose then that persons in distress should address themselves to The Sooth Booth.  And suppose further that upon hearing the truth, their troubles should be assuaged.  Then would the sooth soothe. 

But perhaps the truth might not assuage.  It may be, rather, that the truth would rouse one to anger.  In which case, one might be said to seethe at the sooth.  And should the worst transpire, and one should strain one’s muscles in a state of a rage, then one might be said to be seether sore.  These, then, are the two potential outcomes of hearing sooth.  Happiness, or seether sore.  One or the other.  That is to say, either or.

“Either or,” said the miner. “What do you mean?” I asked him. “I just want to strike it rich,” he said.  “I don’t care if it’s gold or silver.  Either or.” 

“Ah, I understand,” quoth I. “You don’t mean ‘either or,’ you mean ‘either ore’.”

“That’s right,” said he. “Either ore or ore.  So long as it’s ore.”  

I’m sorry to say, that for this poor fellow, it wasn’t so much ‘either ore’ but ‘neither nor.’  But for me, that’s neither here nor there. For, in the end, it was his mine, not mine.  And that’s the risk one takes in mining.  You might strike silver.  You might strike gold.  But just as like, you’ll strike neither ore nor ore.  

Ores are more important to a miner than are oars to a sailor.  After all, a sailor can work with wind as well as an oar.  That is to say, for the sailor, it’s either oar or wind. But of course, if one is to row, one needs two oars.  And yet, the oars are identical.  Any oar can be used just as easily by the right hand as the left.  So while it may be either ore for the miner, it is surely either oar for the sailor.

It is a difficult thing, rowing.  It is easier when one has help.  Ideally, one oarsmen will sit behind another.  In which case they row in a row.  And if they are strong enough, they might even drag another watercraft behind them. Whereupon do they row in a row with a boat in tow.

And if the following boat is connected to their own boat by some sort of cable or rope, then it must be said that they not only tow the boat, but that they tow the line as well. Whereas, if it is the policy of their shipping company to tow other boats, and they do adhere happily to this policy, then we must admit that not only do they tow the line but also that the toe the line.

But do they do so because they agree with company policy?  Be that the case, then they toe the line because they think it fine.  Conversely, if they adhere to such practices because they dread punishment, then we must admit that they toe the line because they fear a fine.  Fine or fine? That is the question.

Write when you have something to say, I said.  Write also when you have nothing to say, I also said.  I think have done both.  I have written.  The apple has been bitten, the beast smitten.  Should not then a small kite be a kitten?  A small glove a glitten?  A bat flies, as does a dove.  Yet it’s a cat that’s kitten and a glove that’s a mitten.  English is fine thing.  And this post is now Donesbury.