Friday, September 01, 2006

On Yiddish and Yiddishisms

Last night, someone sent me a Yiddish word I didn't totally understand - there's a bunch of people who send me such stuff, even though I'm not a Yiddishist, not really even a linguist. But I love it. I'm more of a ... cultural commentator, I guess. Sounds a bit wanky, didn't mean to.

So, this word didn't immediately mean something to me, but that's not surprising. There's a lot of dialectical stuff; both where your family originally came from (Romania, Poland etc) and where they're from now. Like, in North Manchester and bits of Yorkshire, they put -y on the end of lots of words. Not challah, but chally, that kind of thing.

And I was thinking of what I would usually do. As you get older, there are less people who speak Yiddish (unless you're seriously into klezmer).

My major Yiddish consultants were Auntie Fran, my next door neighbour growing up, and her mother Pearl (pronounced Poil). Auntie Fran was much more than just a Yiddish consultant; she was my mother-in-waiting, executive shadchan, (although more than one of the guys she hooked me up with hadn't yet come out to their parents, but then you know what they say about the order people find out) and friend.

A few years ago, an old college friend, terribly English, and working as an employment lawyer in a South London firm, calls me up.

"Sasha, need your advice."

"Shoot." (I always like to speak in real life like a Coen brothers script).

"I have a dispute, and one party has apparently outrageously insulted the other." There's the rustling of paper. "The phrase used, and this is where we're struggling, is (she reads, haltingly) KISH MERE IN TWO-CHESS. Any idea?"

I laugh. "Well, it's Yiddish, but I guess you know that. It's not that insulting."

My friend persuades me that there's a lot hanging on this, and she needs genuine advice. I call Auntie Fran. I should say that Auntie Fran was older than my mother, although undoubtedly young at heart.

"Auntie Fran, how would you translate kish mir in tuches? Is it insulting?"

"Well," she replies. "to my mother's generation, it was a terrible, terrible insult. But to people like us (I imagine, at that moment, sitting in her front room, and her hand waving, indicating our proximity), young people, it's just kiss my arse. No big deal."

I duly reported back to my lawyer friend - although I don't know the outcome of the case - but what I'm left with is the feeling of... youth, that Auntie Fran had, her whole life. She thought of herself as my age, even though she was 30+ years older than me.

And now she's not here, it feels like there's no-one I can call, for these things.

Here's another Auntie Fran story. Like many mother-daughter relationships peopled by women with strong characters and iron wills, Fran and Pearl had a relationship characterised by deep love and care, tinged with the ocassional difference of opinion.

Pearl had come from Poland to the US (once, I was visiting New York, and she was there, and I thought I'd take a trip to the immigration museum at Ellis Island. I called Pearl, to see if she wanted to come. "I went once already," she said, with typical understatement.) Pearl was a bren - a driven woman, with the most effervescent energy. And boy, could she cook. She was a short ball of energy, bouncing of the walls of whatever kitchen she was in, at that moment.

One of the differences of opinion between Pearl and Fran was that Pearl had had some back problems in the old country, and had been to see a physio who had taught her some exercises. I'm guessing she was seventeenish. And for her whole life, she had made the exercises every day. And let me tell you, she was fit. But despite her insistence, Fran wouldn't make the exercises.

A few years ago, I was at a family wedding in Israel, just after I'd hurt my back. Talking with Pearl, she tells me I should make the exercises. With an immediacy even I found scary, she grabbed my hand, took me up to her bedroom. She stripped off, down to that old lady underwear - bras with straps so thick you could cross a river with them, pants - girdles, really - that held everything in, even if there was nothing to hold in. Frankly, she had abs of steel. There's something very beautiful about seeing older people semi-naked: their bodies are their personal history.

She lay down on the floor and started doing serious sit-ups. When she got to a hundred, I was feeling really tired. I think she was, at this point, in her eighties.

"C'mon, Sasha, make ze exercises," and she pushes me down to the floor, and I too am doing situps.

It's exhausting.

On the way back from her room, I go via the basement lobby, where the hairdresser and beauty salon are located. The wedding's later that day, everyone's getting ready. It's kinda like the whole hotel is a dressing room. As I walk past the hair salon, Auntie Fran waves at me. She was, at this time, in her sixties, I think. "Hi Sasha, where've you been?"

And I tell her that Pearl has taught me to make the exercises. I mention, in passing, that I know she doesn't make the exercises.

"Don't tell my mother," she whispers to me, conspiratorially, "but I make the exercises. Every day." She smiles. "I just don't want to give her the satisfaction."

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