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As a young boy growing up (nu? Could I have been an old man growing
up? Well maybe I could have been, except that I wasn't. I was a young
boy, but stop interrupting and let me finish!!) As a young boy growing
up, I felt that Yiddish was the official language of secrets in my family.
Whenever there was a family get-together, or a phone conversation when
the relatives of my parents' generation wanted to say something that
they did not want us kids to understand, they always spoke in Yiddish,
or sometimes in French, depending on who else was involved in the discussion.
As I grew older, I eventually took French in school, thereby decoding
one of the two great mystery languages, but there remained that elusive
Yiddish. Yiddish expressions. Yiddish phrases. Oy! It was particularly
frustrating, because it seemed that every time someone said something
in Yiddish, it was almost always answered with gales of laughter or a
series of rapid-fire enthusiastic responses, or worse, both!! Not only
were we left out of a conversation, but it was always something that
was really funny and unanimously approved of (this unanimity in a large
Jewish family gathering was pretty rare in itself). Then the thought
occurred to us children, grandchildren and cousins; maybe all these funny
things they were saying were about us!! Maybe they were making fun of
us, and we were completely unable to know what it was they were saying.
And of course, the more we asked what they were talking about, the more
they looked to each other and continued to speak in this mysterious language,
and continued to laugh!!! We needed a Yiddish dictionary!
Now if we had known then a few things about the Yiddish language, things
would have been much easier to understand, even if we did not know Yiddish
words. For one thing, as children, we would have been delighted to learn
that there is no one way of spelling Yiddish words. Spelling tests would
have been great!! More importantly, Yiddish is probably the most expressive
language in the world. So many of the words give away their meaning just
by their sound. For instance, that gutteral "ch" sound, as
in Chaloshes. Does any word that means something good start with this
sound? Don't tell me Challah, because that's a much softer sound. As
a matter of fact, does any word that has that sound anywhere mean something
good? Face it, how can you be saying something good by saying a word
that you practically have to spit in order to pronounce properly? How
about that "kl" sound, as in Fahklumpt, fahklempt..not such
a good thing!! So even though we might not have been able to discern
the exact meaning of the words, with a little bit of imagination, we
certainly could have interpreted the tone of the words.
However, if only I had had a Yiddish dictionary as a child, what untold
secrets I could have unraveled!!!