by Lila Hanft, CJN, 3/07/08
“I think back to when I was a child, and ultimately the words return.”
— Sam Silverman, founder, Yiddish Club at Wiggins Place
Wiggins Place tenant Sam Silverman was attending a birthday party in the facility’s private dining room when a Yiddish conversation erupted spontaneously. “A few of us began speaking in Yiddish, and I liked hearing the mamaloshen (mother tongue). I thought it would be nice to have dinner here and speak in Yiddish as best we can,” said Silverman, organizer of the new Yiddish Club at Wiggins Place.
Once a month on a Monday evening, a group of tenants meets for dinner and Yiddish conversation. About 25 people with varying Yiddish skills turned up for the initial dinner. Most had grown up hearing Yiddish in the home; some could understand it but not speak it; and others could speak “Yinglish,” a combination of Yiddish and English, Silverman says.
A few members, like club mainstay Ethel Katz, had formal training in Yiddish in addition to being raised in a Yiddish-speaking home. She studied at the Workmen’s Circle, because “it was important to my father that we be able to talk to his parents,” who had remained behind in Europe, she says.
Katz never did meet her grandparents.
Like Yiddish itself, her father’s family disappeared in the Holocaust. “Those villages were all wiped out,” she says, sadly.
“Which is why we’ve got to keep (Yiddish) going,” pipes up club member Mintsy Agin.
Eva Rosenberg says she spoke Yiddish before she spoke English and, like Katz and Silverman, could at one time read and write in the language. “My father was a Yiddishist who wrote in Yiddish and did recitations,” she says. Her father also acted in Yiddish plays at the famous Second Avenue Theatre in New York and rubbed elbows with such stars of Yiddish theater as Boris Thomashefsky.
Many club members also recall with relish the Yiddish theaters in New York and Cleveland. They describe the vibrant Yiddish theater of their youth much as novelist Henry Roth once did: “a stage that is never empty of tears -- at least one good death rattle is heard every night.”
“It’s such a colorful language,” says Rosenberg. “Things sound better in Yiddish.”
Yiddish culture no longer flourishes, but the language itself continues to serve as a lingua franca for club members, who grew up in Cleveland, New York, and South Africa, among other places. Yiddish is a common thread that connects them despite different cultures, life experiences and history.
“When I began speaking Yiddish with other tenants, I felt an immediate kinship that nothing else can satisfy,” says Agin. “It makes us feel oneness.”
“It’s beautiful,” comments South African native Eta Berger, another participant in the group. “The language is universal no matter where you live or what your interests are.”
“It takes me back to my childhood,” says Silverman, who grew up on a farm in Geneva, Ohio. “I remember pleasant things, like making taiglach (a sweet pastry) with my bubbe (grandmother).”
“(Speaking) Yiddish makes us feel more Jewish,” Agin believes. Gesturing around the Wiggins Place lobby, she adds, “and it makes this place more …. what?” Someone suggests the word “heimisch” (home-like), and Agin agrees. “Yes, it makes Wiggins feel more like home.”