Growing Up Jewish


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Grandma Rachel's Yiddish Lesson

by Shirley Coles ©2003

During the years I spent growing up in Grandma Rachel's house, she spoke to me in Yiddish, while I would answer in English. She was truly bilingual by the time I came along but it was clearly her intent that her grandchildren be familiar with the language she brought with her from abroad. It was the language of her parents, her youth, her dreams and her thoughts. It was the language spoken between her and Grandpa Joseph, and the language she spoke to her children and her friends. It was the language of the songs she sang softly to herself as she kept her home warm, fragrant and traditional.

There was a tacit understanding that, while I learned Yiddish, she would be learning English from me. I suppose I could have spoken her words at times, but they didn't come easily to me. As time went by, I stopped trying and that seemed okay with her. However, there was one thing I truly wanted to do and that was to decipher the newspaper she bought each week…."The Forward". I wanted to learn to read Yiddish.

We decided one day, over my afternoon milk and cookies, that once a week, at the end of the day, we would sit together on Grandma's bed and she would teach me. As we planned, I could see her cheeks grow rosy and her eyes bright. To think that a grandchild of hers would even care to learn was a "mitzvah" to her. And so it came to pass that I found myself in pajamas, with teeth and hair brushed sitting in the middle of her big bed. She sat very close to me. I could smell her deliciousness…a combination of talcum powder and just a little bit of cinnamon from that evening's apple dessert. Her silver gray braid lay on her shoulder. I remember wanting to touch and stroke its silkiness. This was a different Grandma Rachel. Her flannel housecoat had replaced her apron…she was relaxed and all mine for a while.

The current issue of the Yiddish newspaper was open in her lap. She looked up and saw Grandpa Joseph standing in the doorway and she waved him away. This was going to be girl stuff.

I remember how she took my hand in hers and pointed my fingers at the strange letters, explaining to me that they were indeed Hebrew letters which, in this case, formed Yiddish words. Over and over she said, "Aleph, Bet, Gimel, Dalet". These are the ones I remember now, but we worked together for over an hour until I was able to find a word by myself. Like dawn breaking over the sea, I realized I could read and understand a word or two. I got so excited, I started bouncing up and down, hugging her so tight and calling Grandpa to hear. Just as he reached the doorway…just as I said "Look, Grandpa….I can…." The bed caved in and we found ourselves sitting on the floor, laughing so hard my sides hurt.

When Grandma laughed, she was like a bowl of Jello. We sat there, looking around and not quite believing the sight we must have been. We were in a deep depression in the middle of the bed and it seemed there was no way out. We laughed so hard, tears coursed down our cheeks and my grandfather's expression made it even funnier. Like clouds being blown across a summer sky, his face registered dismay and puzzlement. If he felt like laughing, he was not going to admit it. Instead he took charge and pulled us one after the other off the bed. Standing together, we bent double and breathless while he righted the mattress on its supports. "Such mishegas I have never seen", he said…which only had us laughing again.

How fascinating it is to look back and realize which bits and pieces of our lives are chosen for remembering. I have no doubt that this event has never left me because it was one of the happiest and warmest of my childhood. I wonder now if I wanted to learn to read "The Forward" for my sake, or perhaps to make Grandma happy and keep her close to me.


from the September 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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