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Nov 14 2011

Yiddish, the Language of “Bubbe Love”

By at 4:08 pm

i heart yiddish t-shirtI loved Cara’s description of her relationship with her own grandmother and of her pleasure in seeing her child relate to his grandparents. Believe me, Cara, your parents and in-laws are also kvelling as they watch you parent and grow into your new role of “mother.” It’s a bonus of grandparenting.

I also noticed, with a smile, the Yiddish words used in the piece.

Both sets of my grandparents lived around the block from me when I was growing up so I saw them a lot and have many, many wonderful memories. I lost one grandmother, my Nana, when I was only 9 years old. It was a devastating loss which I only fully realized, mourned, and came to terms with as an adult. My Grandma, on the other hand, died six years ago, at almost 100 years old, and lived to see my first grandchildren.

Each time I walked through her door with the twins, she first looked at me and happily called, “Hello, Savta!” Then she would beam at the twin bundles I brought to visit her every week. Her joy at seeing them was only exceeded by her joy seeing me as a grandmother. She was so happy for me. “I loved being a grandmother,” she would tell me, sure that I would find the same joy and sense of purpose.

Both my grandmothers spoke fluent Yiddish. I didn’t understand the words sometimes but the tone and the inflection with which the Yiddish words were spoken came straight from their heart and into mine.

One day, my daughter walked in on me rocking and talking to her infant twins. “Mommy, I didn’t know you spoke so much Yiddish!” she exclaimed with surprise.

Actually, ich ken nicht redden iddish. (I don’t speak Yiddish). Ich farshtai (I understand) only a bissel (a little). But for me it’s the language of “bubbe” love and even though I had no “bubbes,” rather a Grandma and Nana, and even though I am a Savta, it seems the right language in which to speak to mein aineklach (my grandchildren).

English doesn’t have the right sound for me even though it’s my native language. I don’t know French, Spanish, or Italian, but they probably work fine for the bonne-mamans, abuelas, and nonas.

But Yiddish just seems the language of love for (Ashkenazi) Jewish grandmothers to use with their grandchildren. These children taught us about a love so strong, so unique, so awesome that truly no language can adequately express it. No heart can hold it without expanding to its limit.

Jilli and Evie are my shaina maidelach (beautiful girls), Gabe, Jack, Aaron, and Lev are my yingalach (boys). Each is a kleega kup (literally, smart head).

I think a lot about my grandparents who spoke Yiddish and I am distressed that rather than teaching us the language, my parents only spoke Yiddish when they didn’t want us to understand what they were saying. It worked. And a language used by generations of my ancestors was lost with mine.

But, I suppose, it was a different time–for my grandparents and parents, assimilating into the American dream meant giving up, and giving away, “relics” of the past. They wanted to be “American.” Apparently Yiddish was dispensable. Too many uncomfortable associations. We boomers were “new Jews”, out of the shtetlach for good.

But mine is the “Black Pride,” “Gay Pride” and feminist generation.  We embraced the multiplicity of our identities. And I am sad that I never learned what, to me, is the language of a special kind of love.

As a grandmother, I need Yiddish. I need it to try to say what can not be said. To approximate with its words, expressions, sounds, tone, and history all I bring to the role of Jewish grandmother. So I grasp at any Yiddish word or phrase to express “bubbe love”–the love that can only be given by a grandmother, received by a grandchild.

Often, when I look at these wonderful gifts, these shaina punim (beautiful faces) who I pray I get to watch grow up, marry, and have their own children and grandchildren, I say to God, “Gutanyu, mon, viffel yurin vest du meir geshenken? (My God, how many years will you give me?) Ich bet fun deer ahundred untstvunzig gezunte yurin (I beg you 120 years in good health).”

That seems a sentiment best expressed in Yiddish, too.


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