Today (since sundown last night) is Rosh ha-Shanah, the Jewish New Year. (But see previous post.)
The usual holiday greeting is “L’Shanah Tovah,” which is roughly “[May the] year [be] good,” or “[May you have] a good year.” But my sister points out in an email that, as kids growing up in Jewish Baltimore, we never heard that greeting, except perhaps from Hebrew-school teachers. We heard, and returned, greetings not in Hebrew but in Yiddish: “Gut yontiff,” (“A good holiday”) or “Gut yontiff und gut yahr.” (A good holiday and a good year.”)
[What did the rabbi say to the Pope? “Gut yontiff, pontiff.”]
“Yontiff” is the Yiddish version of the Hebrew “yom tov,” literally “good day” but idiomatically “holiday.” Thus “Gut yontiff” is, read literally, a pleonasm: “Have a good good-day.”
My sister and I were part of the first generation of Jews of Eastern European ancestry to know approximately zero Yiddish. My father didn’t speak it, but he understood it well enough to get the Yiddish punchlines of the Borscht Belt jokes, and his mother’s Yiddish was better than her English to her dying day. By contrast, most of the Yiddish I know consists of Yiddish loan-words into English, and since I never learned German a conversation in Yiddish might as well be in Martian for all the sense I can make of it.
Assimilation is a fine thing, and I wouldn’t wish for a stronger set of ethnic identities in the United States, but something important was lost when Yiddish became a dead language. There are things that can be said in Yiddish that simply can’t be said in English, and I have to accept claims about the glories of Yiddish literature on faith, since most of it is lost in translation. (Klezmer music, on the other hand, you can have.)
Of course, most of my contemporaries don’t actually speak Hebrew, either, but most of us know a few words of it from prayers and synagogue services and perhaps remember some of the grammar from Hebrew school. Even for those who really speak Hebrew, it’s not a substitute for Yiddish. Before the foundation of Israel, Hebrew hadn’t been a language in everyday social (as opposed to liturgical) use for something more than 2000 years; Jews living in the Palestine of the Hellenistic and Roman periods spoke either Aramaic or Greek. So as a living language, its roots are terribly shallow compared to the roots of Yiddish, which go back a thousand years, more or less.
There’s a story from the 1950s about an Eastern European Jewish woman living in Tel Aviv who takes her young son to the park. He speaks to her in Hebrew, and she replies in Yiddish. A passerby asks her why she won’t speak to her son in the tongue he prefers, and she replies: “I don’t want him to forget he’s Jewish.” Yiddish was the language of the Ashkenazi diaspora (the Sephardim had Ladino), as Hebrew is the language of the State of Israel.
Personally, I identify as Ashkenazi. The Zionist project has much to be said for it, but it’s not especially my project. I don’t regard visiting Jerusalem as an ascent, and in my opinion the Holy One (blessed be He), desiring that there be a national home for the Jews, in His infinite wisdom and mercy created Long Island.
So Gut yontiff unt gut jahr to all of you.