A joyful shlep: how learning Yiddish helped me through lockdown

Learning a language during a pandemic is a romantic promise to yourself – a promise of continuation.

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Several weeks ago, I did something impulsive: I signed up for an online Yiddish class. I will say here that I know that being able to have the time and resources to learn a foreign language during a pandemic is a luxury, and one I am very lucky and privileged to be able to afford.

I also know that I am not the only one who has chosen to spend this lockdown period – during which those of us who are lucky enough to be able to be stuck at home are stuck at home – learning a new language. “Everyone’s doing it,” my therapist said, when I told her in our biweekly FaceTime that I had started learning Yiddish. “I have someone who just started Farsi.”

One day, I put out a call to Twitter followers, asking if any of them were also learning languages during the pandemic. I said that it wasn’t for a piece, because, at the time, I hadn’t thought I’d be writing this one, and so I won’t quote them, but I will offer that 49 people replied, sharing that they were using Duolingo or buying books or watching shows with subtitles or, like me, taking a class. There were Italian and Spanish and Arabic and Punjabi-learners in the replies.

Learning a new language during a pandemic is two things. It’s practical, because here you are, at home, not at a bar or at the movies or at a friend’s apartment – so, yes, fine, you’ll conjugate verbs. But it’s also, I think, a romantic kind of promise to yourself. You are telling yourself that you’ll have time to keep learning this language. That you’ll be able to get better at it. You start something so as to be able to see it through.

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The world is, for want of a better word, scary. I’m not saying that the people who replied to my tweet were starting these languages because, deep down, they were afraid of living in a world consumed by Covid-19, and that the virus would take loved ones’ lives, and maybe their lives too, and that they were trying to ward off the thought by doing something that contains within it the promise of continuation. I’m saying that that’s part of why I started.

That tension – between practicality and romanticism, dread and hope – is heightened, at least for me, with Yiddish. There are, of course, people in the world today who still speak Yiddish at home, as many more people now know thanks to Netflix's Unorthodox, the story of a young woman who escapes her Brooklyn-based ultra-Orthodox community for Berlin.

But even so, learning Yiddish almost necessarily reminds you of the tragedies of the past: how many people would speak this language if eastern European Jews had not had to immigrate away, or if those who remained hadn’t been persecuted and killed? For the same reason, though, learning Yiddish also connects the past, present and future. I thought of my great-grandparents while sitting in class (on my couch). What would they think of me learning this? Would they be proud? Startled? I finally decided that they’d be bemused.

I suspect that other class members, logging on and struggling to work their computer mics around the country, were wondering the same. One showed a photo of her great-grandparents who spoke Yiddish. Another realised that, oh, that’s why her parents pronounced Jewish holidays the way that they did. And I think that that, too, is the reason I signed up for a Yiddish class during the pandemic. My parents do not speak Yiddish, and may not fully understand why I wanted to learn it, but learning made me feel closer to my family. It prompted my dad to tell me stories about his zayde (the Yiddish word for grandfather, and one I knew before taking the class).

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But the other thing I experienced learning Yiddish in a pandemic is that it was a joy. It was a joy to sing songs about potatoes. It was a joy to ask for a copy of Motl, Peysi the Cantor's Son for my birthday and stumble through a few pages. It was a joy, for 75 minutes once a week, to kick myself for using the German, not Yiddish, version of “we are” – instead of worrying whether I’d washed my hands thoroughly enough after taking the dog for a walk. It was a joy to think about something and apply myself seriously to it; to spend time before class preparing my answer to, “How are you”, even though I admittedly always answered, “Me shlep zikh”, or “I’m dragging myself around, pulling myself through.” 

But I didn’t feel like I was dragging myself around during that class. I felt like I was learning how to say, “My living room and kitchen are one room. Here is my refrigerator!” That is to say, I felt great.

When that particular Yiddish class ended a few weeks ago, I emailed the director to ask what summer class would be right for me. He suggested first a Beginner II class, and then a conversation course. Or, he said, would I be interested in an Intensive Beginner class? It would be some review, but it meets not once but twice a week.

I signed up for that one. You learn a language better, after all, if you put more time into it. Best of all if you feel lucky to be able to put in the time.

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor

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