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Learning German

 

A few weeks ago I went on my regular online search for a way to learn Yiddish. I keep looking for a program that will start where I am (at the beginning), and maybe give me some idea of why Yiddish seems to be filled with words I still feel too young to use. But none of the free language learning sites offer Yiddish, and the sites that charge a fee for each lesson are often too advanced for a beginner like me. Then I came across someone who suggested learning some Hebrew and German first, before starting one of the difficult Yiddish classes. So I added German to my Duolingo and Lingvist accounts, and tried to reassure Cricket that she would not have to learn yet another language along with me. She was not convinced.

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“Je ne comprend pas.”

The first time I heard German words coming out of the speaker on my phone, though, I felt like I needed to lower the volume, to hide some hideous crime; I didn’t realize how emotionally loaded the German language would be for me. Like when they taught me the word for “work”: Arbeit. My mind automatically finished the sentence to Arbeit Macht Frei, “Work will make you free,” the motto on the gates to Auschwitz.

So many German words were familiar to me, even though I was sure I knew no German ahead of time. Some were familiar because they are pretty much the same in English, like perfekt for perfect, Haben for have, ist for is, etc. Some were familiar from the last names of so many Jews: Blume (flower), Berg (mountain), Stern (star), Baum (tree), Schreibe (write).

Essen and Fressen were also familiar words, because some time in my childhood my father tried to make a joke about people who eat like animals, and I didn’t get it, so he had to explain that Essen is eat, for people, and Fressen is eat, for animals. I don’t remember who he was trying to insult at the time. Schmutzig, for dirty, was familiar too, as in, you have some schmutz on your face. Then there was schmuck, which Duolingo said was the German word for “jewelry,” despite the fact that, for my whole life, I knew it as the Yiddish word for a part of the male anatomy.

One early discovery was that in the German language words can be capitalized in the middle of sentences. I used to get in a lot of trouble for throwing in unnecessary capital letters in High School English classes (this was back when assignments were handwritten, and not spell checked and grammar checked and emailed to the teacher). I realized that I may not have been making up my own rules out of thin air, as one teacher had suggested, and instead was just using the grammar rules of the wrong language.

I may have taken in more German than I’d realized in my childhood. My father did have a habit of speaking to our dog in his high school German, and I heard random Yiddish words whenever I was around older Jewish people (which was often), and I watched plenty of Holocaust and WWII movies over the years.

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“Ich bin ein Doberman Pinscher?”

It’s a funny thing. Politically, Germany has managed the aftermath of the Holocaust better than most other countries (certainly better than Poland, where they recently made it illegal to even suggest that Poland had any connection to the Holocaust). In Germany they educate their kids from an early age about what their grandparents and great grandparents did, and why it should never happen again. Yes, they still have neo-Nazis and white supremacists and fascists, but so does the United States. But despite all of that, I can just barely listen to a computerized voice speaking simple German words, and I’m still overwhelmed with words that remind me of things I wish I could forget.

I grew up with kids whose parents would never have bought a BMW or a Mercedes, because they were German-made cars, and Germans would benefit. I grew up with Holocaust survivors telling their stories, at school, and synagogue, and in books. This is my history. But maybe learning some German will help me come to more peace around this history, or at least help me to articulate what still resonates in my bones. One thing I know for sure is that German will give me a bridge to Yiddish, which is worth a lot to me.

 

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“Danke”

Talking To Dogs

 

My father used to yell at our Doberman Pinscher in German. It’s possible that he added in some Yiddish, but he made a point of saying that you should speak to a German dog in German. The rest of us spoke to her in English, though, and she seemed to be fine with that.

"Huh?"

“Huh?”

I have a habit of dropping into Hebrew or French for a word or two, rarely for a whole sentence, because I’m not fluent in either language. I don’t know why I do it. Maybe I’m just pretentious and annoying, but I like the way the different languages sound, with the hard square letters of Hebrew, and the rolling curlicues of French. Cricket can understand up to the number three in French, because that’s how I taught her to jump up onto the bed, Un, deux, trois, Jump! (See, I can’t even stay in French for four words!) With Hebrew I tend to stick to short phrases, like “Where is…?” or “Thank you” Or “Why?” And Cricket tilts her head and nods. She’s a savant.

"I understand everything you say. I just disagree."

“I understand everything you say. I just disagree.”

Butterfly has a whole different vocabulary. It’s as if the girls speak, or at least comprehend, two different languages. I can’t use the same words to communicate with both of them at the same time. I’ve noticed that they choose the words or signals they will respond to more than I do. It’s like they are flipping through a book of fabric swatches until they find one that speaks to them. Just because I repeat something a hundred times doesn’t mean they will pick it up, but I can do something just once, and it clicks forever.

"Mommy?"

“Mommy?”

I wonder if, given a chance, this is how people would be too, if forcing everyone to use the same language, while very convenient, is cutting off huge swaths of natural language.       What if I was born to speak Hindi and my whole life I will be missing pieces of my soul because I can’t capture them in English. Is that possible?

Butterfly responds best to touch. She calms when I pet her, she stills when I hold her in place for her insulin shot, she turns to look at me when I tug on her leash. She believes in eye contact and body language and leaves most of the English stuff to Cricket.

"I have Mommy's sock and that means I have Mommy."

“I have Mommy’s sock and that means I have Mommy.”

I tend to speak to Butterfly in a higher tone of voice, and fewer words overall. She responds best to facial expressions and body language. If I reach a hand out to her, she comes over to get scratches. She watches me very carefully. Sometimes I wonder if she’s partially deaf, but I think it’s more the deafness that comes from not understanding the words I am saying to her.

I tried to teach her “Down,” but she responds better to “Stop.” And I have to be right there, not across the room, for it to make sense to her. She understands when I pick up her blood testing kit, and she understands when leashes are taken off the hook at the door, but she doesn’t understand “sit,” maybe because it took her almost a year to build the muscle strength to sit on her back legs the way Cricket does, so when I was trying to build her vocabulary, she didn’t have any physical corollary for “sit.”

Cricket responds to tone of voice more than anything else. If she hears someone yelling outside, she barks. If I whisper, she wakes up from a dead sleep and assumes I was taking about her and planning an outing for her. If I, god forbid, say the word chicken, all hell breaks loose.

"Chicken!"

“Chicken!”

She learned her commands as a puppy. She knows sit and stay and down and turn, but she also knows walk, go, outside, shoes, leash, food, toy, platypus, chewy, poop, bath.

Cricket and her platypus.

Cricket and her platypus.

Those are the obvious things, but I’ve also noticed that she can understand context, even when her usual words aren’t in use. Even without the words “poopie butt” or “bath,” she can figure out that I’m planning to wash her in the sink, and she runs under her couch to safety.

"You can't catch me!"

“You can’t clean my poopie butt!”

My therapist’s Golden Retriever is six years old and just now studying to be a service dog. She needs her license so that she can help her dad, but this means that she has to learn a whole new set of signals, different from what she learned in her obedience classes way back when. This has become a problem. She is a very bright girl, but she is getting confused. Her poor forehead crinkles and she can’t decide if she’s supposed to sit, stay, turn around, or leave the room.

"Help me, please."

“Help me, please.”

No wonder dogs use smell and yips and nips to communicate with each other; they must think that the human world is a tower of babel, with all of our different languages creating utter confusion. For dogs, the smell of “female, spayed, eats a lot of chicken,” is the same around the world.