Why I Write in Yiddish


I used to get a big laugh from my friends when I let slip that I was planning on publishing a book of poetry in Yiddish.  “You’re determined to be anonymous!” they’d exclaim.  “If there’s anyone left who reads Yiddish, they’re going to go for classic prose like Sholom Aleichem, not poetry - certainly not from an English poet who lives in Israel and suddenly feels a need to explore a long-gone personal past!”   

But many of those friends showed up to the book’s launch in the spring of 2018, and some of them later whispered to me that they suddenly recalled a few expressions in Yiddish from their youth, a phrase their parents used, a couple of words from their neighbors, a punchline from a joke that can’t be translated into any other language.  I found myself proclaiming that if we could take all those bits and pieces, added them up, joined them together, and built something from them, maybe it would do us some good. “Not only do you live in the past,” my best friend responded, “you live in another world!”

I’ve been writing poetry in Yiddish for almost fifty years now.  Something would come to mind from some childhood kitchen conversation; something would happen that I would want to see from an ironic perspective; or I’d start talking to myself in the mirror. In those moments I would try to turn the experience into the written word, but rarely would I write it down without first translating it into English.  So often these poems came out lame and private, with unclear humor, and most of the time I put them aside as words that would have meaning to me alone.

The language was not just from home.  My Hebrew education in a Jewish day school was supplemented by old-fashioned bible classes two days a week.  The aged Rabbi Gedaliah Cohen, who taught bar mitzvah boys to sing, agreed for some reason to take me on as a student of the Bible – reading with me a sentence in Ashkenazi Hebrew and translating it to Yiddish.  My mother, who must have done some special convincing to get me accepted as his student, used to laugh at the frequent misunderstandings that must have resulted from these lessons.  She would tell me about it in Yiddish:

“The teacher says ‘Vayomos – and died, Sora – Sarah.  Now child, tell me.  Who died?’  ‘Vayomos died.’ 

‘Child, Sarah died.’ 

‘What?  Both of them?’ 

‘Silly child, the translation is ‘dead’.’ 

‘Vayomos, Sora, AND the translation? All three?  Must have been a plague!’”   

My mother’s anecdote led me to take great care of translation in the future, and respect the independence of individual languages.  I would constantly ask the rabbi questions about the meaning of the words, the meaning of the text.  For some reason the weary octogenarian respected my questions and considered his answers carefully, no matter how outrageous they were.  One of my earliest poems describes the nature of our dialogues:



  The old man and I sit on the porch‑ ‑

It is Indian summer and the weather

lures us with our books outside.

And the madness of the season

makes me stop the lesson of Bereisheit

with‑ ‑"Rebbe, what do you think of Darwin?"


The rabbi of the "Kippele" shul knows no English‑ ‑

we discuss the Bible in Mamme‑loshen.  

And what has he read

that he should know of "The Origin of Species"

So he asks me to explain‑ ‑and I do‑ ‑

in my most grown up eleven year old tone‑ ‑

about the apes, the jungle, survival

of the fittest.


It is eleven years since the Holocaust.

In the twilight he is silent, rocking

very slightly as he arranges his decision.


"Bobbe Meisses," he says, and I nod,

suddenly in revelation.

"You learn what you must for school

but of course no one can really

believe in such stories."


One lesson the Rabbi taught me was that in Yiddish anything could be legitimately questioned. Yiddish opened up possibilities of providing alternative perspectives on everything.

This method of open questioning came up just recently in a poem while I was writing a series of lyrics about Biblical heroines for the rock group Panic Ensemble.  The singer, Yael Kraus, wanted to sing from the viewpoint of otherwise silent women, and I wrote from the perspective of Lot’s wife, as one reluctant to leave the revels of Sodom. 



Look, look at the light!

See the sky glowing bright with the fire

Burning up, last night we were one

I want you to stay in my eyes


Oh the wildest nights

Holding the men

And women of Sodom

I want to love them all


Taste, drunk with the night,

Taste my blood grown thick with desire

Burning up, blinded by love

I want them to stay in my arms


Oh the wildest nights

Holding the men

And women of Sodom

I want to love them all


Before us now - banal days

One life one love one lord

Empty land, no pleasure of love

I choose to purge it from my heart


Oh the wildest nights

Holding the men

And women of Sodom

I am becoming salt.


 I wrote about Jezebel as a material girl, about Vashti warning the other women of the dangers of acceding to her punishment, and about Hagar as a victim of a jealous competitor, after the manner of the Yiddish poet Itzik Manger. But with Rebecca I was stuck.  Reading the chapter about Rebecca over and over, I could not understand her first reaction to the sight of her future husband after covering her face.  The Hebrew says “Vatipol mi hagamal”;  a literal translation would be that as soon as she caught sight of Isaac, she “fell off the camel.” But the usual explanations describe her veiling and descent as a mark of her deep respect. I wound up writing a poem about what it was like to see the intended husband as a forty-year-old shell-shocked virgin, after she had been prepared by the sophisticated and expensive courtship of the slave.  This was my Talmud teaching – turning a situation around and seeing it from the opposite possibility – if only to check out the options, if only to make sure that the conclusion reached is the right one.    The Aramaic term is Ifcha mistabra.  The English would be – “it wouldn’t hurt to try it on.” This way of looking at holy texts continues to appeal to me, to remind me that it is always good to examine other possibilities.

It was not just the Rabbi with whom I learned the nuances that language could provide and the unorthodox ways of thinking.  The afternoons I didn’t go to study bible were spent in the Workmen’s Circle Y.L. Peretz Folk Shule, where history began with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and the beginning of unions in the U.S.  Where does Jewish history really begin? Wherever it began, it was connected in my mind with Yiddish.  Eventually when I came to study at the university, it was not surprising I hooked up with Hayden White, who when he was introduced to me as one of the foremost historians of the day I responded “So, who are the other three?”  We soon began trading books on Roland Barthes.

So much was brought to life through Yiddish.  Because there were so few pupils in the school – all children of refugees who wished to preserve a tradition in the face of a seductive new world - we were encouraged to express ourselves, to use the language in any way possible.   Every year there was the Purim Shpiel where I played Haman, my head wrapped in a large Turkish towel and sporting a wonderful villainous moustache.  A national composition contest about the American Jewish socialist and Zionist, Louis Dembitz Brandeis, brought me to read my winning essay on the Yiddish Shtunde, the local Yiddish radio program, when I was ten.  Soon after an ironic essay about my epicurean cat was published in the pages of the Yiddish newspaper, the Forwards, in response to my mother’s worry that my concern for felines would lead me to a “katz in kopp,” an obsession with cats.  Had my family not needed to move and escape the declining neighborhood, I’m sure my love for the language would have continued to direct my talents. But the entire scene disappeared at the same time.

My mother and father continued to fight for the presence of Yiddish, even after we moved to a more assimilated, bourgeois neighborhood where the old ways were an embarrassment at best.  Among their many activities my parents organized a Yiddish Cultural Council and made sure to bring as many theater troupes, writers and poets travelling through the area to appear before a loyal audience at the Jewish center.  Some of the characters stand out even today in my memory. 

But the most entertaining was the one to become the best known.  When I was fifteen I was introduced to Satan in Goray. It had just come out in English and was almost exciting as Jack Kerouac or Henry Miller to me.  A year or two after it was announced that Isaac Bashevis Singer would be the next Yiddish lecturer and even though I was beginning to look down at the newcomers,  the “Greener,” I found a corner to sit at his lecture where I could dissociate myself from the crowd. 

As Singer began to speak – an old spiel that I’ve heard since about all the ways in which (because of its outsider status) one could use Yiddish to be ‘naughty,’ it was clear that it was not pleasing to the audience.  There were little “no’s” and “oy’s” and even a few gasps. I seem to remember that Florence Newman announced she was about to faint.  After the weak polite applause my mother took Singer by the hand, brought him to my little corner, and said “Here is a person who appreciates your approach!”  I was left to entertain the speaker while my parents apologized to all their friends who had expected culture and received ‘filth’. 

For both of us this was a pleasure.  His joy at being left alone with a young woman was unbounded and the other results of the evening disappeared for him.  At the obligatory dinner which followed I cannot remember the conversation, but am sure it included only two happy diners.

Later he seemed not to remember our meeting, even though we met later on numerous occasions.  

Singer’s relationships to women seemed to be based more on their ability to translate to English – not his words but his ideas.  Often his translators didn’t even know the language but relied on his reading what he claimed to be a spontaneous but literal translation in order to craft a tale.  I am certain that Yiddish was to him a kind of secret language that allowed his thoughts to range uncensored even as he rewrote his memories and fantasies.  The rarity and depth of the language opened for him the door to another world.

And so it was with me.  Although I had crafted many poems in my mind, and had even written some poems in Yiddish, the need to write in English confined me.  It was only when the press of the Yiddish Writers turned to me to ask for a little volume of poems that I felt both the justification and the freedom to really explore the Yiddish in me.   

My poems began with a discussion of the difficulty of writing – I lacked the vocabulary – and I wrote first of my unworthiness to be a Yiddish poet.  And then I admitted the dangers of being influenced by imagining the denunciation by Yiddish purists, how I would have to simply ignore the potential criticism and even worse, the absence of response.  

It was in that moment that poems began coming to me from long-ago voices, and the imperative to use the language of the stories I had heard about relatives who disappeared became a driving force despite my linguistic unfitness.  I only dared write about some of the memories – my partisan aunt, the rogue old lady who grudgingly took us in when we came to America, the refugees my parents sheltered for many years.  The others, no less colorful, remain in drafts – the gypsies’ abduction of my mother, the beatings my father received on the streets of Danzig, my brother’s failed attempt to assert democracy in our new home in the new world.  I thought I would await a response before I continued in my efforts.  A review, a few gruff responses, a comical observation.  Nothing came.

Fortunately, after I’d completed a draft the Yiddish publishers requested a dual-language book, and although I generally use Hebrew only for prose, I found it comfortable to translate the poems into Hebrew.  The Hebrew translations, facing the Yiddish poems, succeeded in winning numerous reviews, all praising – first the nerve and then the nostalgia. (nothing about the poetry) The Hebrew versions were reprinted in many journals and newspapers.  Nothing about the Yiddish.

There were at least two people who helped me with the Yiddish – the poet Rivka Bassman Ben-Haim and the writer Daniel Galay.  They encouraged me all the way, but I had to think for a while if it was really worth it to publish in Yiddish.  After all, it meant neglecting my English poetry for well over a year.  It wasn’t just a change of language, but of exploring a different corner of my heart, of reaching into forgotten places not only of my own history, but the history of a culture.  Often they mesh – there are so many examples of mamme loshen I have heard no where else:  When my baby could not be calmed in the first three months of her life, and the doctors had told me to let her cry, my mother did a ritualistic cleansing of my apartment from the evil eye. 


(from the Yiddish)

Who has given you the evil eye

May rough bark cover his hide.

Who has given you the evil eye

May rough bark cover his hide.

In the forests there are four clefts

May the curse disappear in their depths.

In the forests there are four clefts

May the curse disappear in their depths.

It was tongue-in-cheek, of course, but her order for the evil eye to be hidden away in four piles of waste of the forest seemed to work.  My daughter slept that night for the first time.  I remember every word of that charm.  If I don’t write it down, and explain the process of the ritual, who will know?  I have to admit, however, that I changed one word for the rhyme – shpalten are not ‘clefts’ but ‘piles of shit.’

I did not always respect the culture of the orphan generation, the generation who could not pass on their wit and knowledge to their children.  In college, exposed to so many other cultures, I was particularly impervious to the wisdom of the elders,   one example:  my folk dance troupe specialized in couple dancing, and my dance partner and I were scheduled for a performance. Not only was my dancing lacking in grace and charm, but I had a tendency to turn left when everyone else was turning right. And my partner was increasingly drawn to a beautiful dancer with a long blond braid.  The dance we were to perform was called the Alexandrovska, popular in the court of the Czar, and involved a turn in which my partner was supposed to lift me up and lower me on his other side. The blond was much lighter and more graceful than me.  So I practiced every chance I could get, humming the music and swaying as I passed my parents, ignoring their presence. “Oh, I know that song!”  My mother exclaimed, and then began to sing,

In Vilna, the maidens,

they go to dance classes. 

And the boys

Laugh at the lasses


They whirl the ‘valchick’  (little waltz)

this way and there –

each little maiden

with her cavalier.

When my partner exchanged me for the blond, that song made me shrug it off.  Taking oneself too seriously is difficult in Yiddish.

Despite all the efforts to revive the language, sometimes now, when I meet my friends, they will remember an incident from their grandmother, or a saying of their grandfather, or just a phrase I have never heard of.   It’s not in the dictionary or a phrasebook, but surely it deserves that we make an effort in any way we can to write them down.