- Lessons in Russian and Yiddish
Sarah and I met in a group, CJWA (Creative Jewish Women's Alliance), started by Marcia Cohn Spiegel in Los Angeles in the late 1970s. Although Sarah and I were both born in the U.S., we are of different generations. Sarah was born in the late 1920s; I was born in the early '50s. I joined the group around 1981. Over the years I have come in and out of CJWA, as in 1996, I started living extensive periods in Russia. As we talked the issue of language, place, loss and identity became central to the conversation.
I experienced a reawakening of my mother tongue and love of poetry in my 60s. Both my parents, with whom I had always spoken Yiddish, had died and I was facing retirement from Cal State Northridge at age 70 and knew I would have time to write. Writing in Yiddish propels me into a rich, deep historical context that involves my family, my people and my own vicarious living of their experiences. For me it is like taking off into another world. I walk and run in English. In Yiddish I'm moving in deeper water against the tide that now requires conscious breathing, stroking and effort to survive. [End Page 70]
My mother went into labor in Yiddish
in Yiddish her prayers
in Yiddish her screams
From her mouth and breast Yiddish flowed deep into me
I was bathed, fed
licked and prettied with her warm Yiddish tongue.
My father took me walking in Yiddish
to see the peacocks
I held on to his Torah pointing finger
And from the sky raisins and almonds fell
while sitting on his lap to see
the letters of the golden peacock's rainbow.
We held each letter
in our hands with joy
as if it were a new born little chick.
I envy those
who in their youth had lovers
caressing, teasing and kissing them in Yiddish,
language of first love.
My father, the principal of a Yiddish Workmen's Circle School taught me to read and write in Yiddish when I was four. He loved poetry, sang Yiddish songs and was great fun in my young years. As an adult I began to understand his struggles to preserve Yiddish and the pain of both my parents over their losses of family in the Holocaust. I describe him in the following fragment:
Autumn 1940 in America
He will walk briskly and determinedup the steep hill to his Yiddish schoolhouse at the top. He will unfurl his flag of continuityfor the beloved thousand year old, stateless language he guards as treasure brought from home in Polandto immigrants' children who shout and laugh and play as they swim faster, deeper, further out and far away glad to ride the high tide undertow of English. [End Page 71]
My grandmother had lived in St. Petersburg, Russia in the early 1900s, which was unusual because a strict quota allowed very few Jews to live there. Once my grandparents immigrated, they never spoke Russian again. They spoke Yiddish in the home. Yiddish was my parents' first language, but they abandoned it. I fell in love with Russian literature in college and continued to study it in grad school. After that I began to write poetry seriously and that has been my focus ever since. In the early 1980s, I started to translate Russian poetry. I focused on Russian women poets whose work I felt a close affinity to: Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva and Bella Akhmadulina. My Russian was not very good at that point, but ironically I was confident then, enough to translate and publish some translations. My father worked for the Marshall Plan when I was a very young child and we lived all over Europe, though he left us in other countries when he went to Germany. This experience was very important to me and I wanted my own children to have the experience of living abroad.
In I996 I received a Fulbright scholar's grant to teach in St. Petersburg and to work on...