Friday, September 5, 2008

Many Paths To Cultural Enlightenment

My good friend over at Shtetl Fabulous posted a very interesting article yesterday about the Yiddish language, and I started to write a comment in response that could very well have ended up longer than her original post. Instead of monopolizing her entire comment page, I decided to extend it into a post for this blog.

Despite growing up in a very secular, non-religiously observant home in the San Francisco Bay Area, I now find myself firmly entrenched in Jewish affiliation. Not only do I work in the community as a Jewish educator, but I hold two Master's degrees in Jewish subjects, belong to a synagogue and attend regularly, count many Jews among my closest friends, and live in a home with a kosher kitchen and mezzuzahs affixed on most of my doorposts (and yes, I linked to an article about mezzuzot on instead of wikipedia - 'nuff said). I think it's safe to say that I'm a knowledgeable, affiliated American Jew.

There are times, though, when I feel completely ignorant when it comes to this religion/culture of mine. I do not know if this is due to growing up on the West Coast, far from any influence of the type of Jewish culture that I associate with New York, or if it is due to the fact that my Jewish ancestors came to this country in the 1840s along with two million other German Jews, long before the mass waves of immigration that flooded American shores between the 1880s and 1920s. These German Jews came to the United States mostly for economic reasons and were highly assimilated in their native country - they were not overly religious and spoke German (and later, English), not Yiddish. The Jews who came in the late 19th - early 20th Centuries were mostly Eastern European, spoke Yiddish, and brought much of what one would now think of as "Jewish food" with them. It is this Judaism of kugel and Yiddish that I struggle with.

I think it's great that there are people out there who want to resurrect and revitalize Yiddish as a spoken language. There is something lovely about this nostalgic cause, but it is not a cause I identify with at all. Aside from the dozens of Yiddish words that have made it into our vernacular, many people in the Jewish community frequently pepper their speech with words that I simply do not know, and instead of using the language to encourage a sense of inclusion, it actually excludes. A couple of weeks ago, my boss used the word "tachles" as we were creating the outline for a five-week course, and instead of asking him what this word meant, I took 20 minutes to search online, not even realizing the word was Yiddish. I felt inferior, somehow, that this word's meaning eluded me, and did not want to let him know I did not know it. For some people, Yiddish has become a vehicle through which they express and embrace their Jewish identity, and I applaud this. They find meaning and connection in this unique language.

I maintain that one of the beauties of Judaism is that it is multi-faceted, and people can find something meaningful in many different places. For some people, it is language - either Yiddish or modern Hebrew (my personal favorite). There is a small movement of young Jews in their 20s who are embracing and expressing their Judaism through tattoos. Some people embark on social action projects, endeavoring to fix this world that all too often appears irrevocably shattered. Some people make aliyah and move to Israel, and others immerse themselves in spirituality and prayer. The best part of all is that it is all incredibly personal - we all find meaning in different places.

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