Life & Culture

Kvetching and kvelling with Olga from Kiev

Miranda Levy wanted to reconnect with the Yiddish she remembered from childhood. So she signed up for classes on Zoom.


Gut-shaBbes. Vos makhtsu? Ikh lern Yidish. A sheynem dank!

So here we are, two friends and I — learning the traditional language of our ancestors through the modern channel of a Zoom call. Like the original Yiddish speakers, we are scattered across the world: I am in Essex, Karen is in Highgate, north London, Jeremy is on the east coast of the States. Our, teacher, Olga Berdnikova, is on Kiev time.

This is our ‘taster’ lesson. My renewed interest in Yiddish came after watching Shtisel (which Olga hasn’t seen because Netflix is prohibitively expensive in the Ukraine). How I loved the gloriously alliterative, passionate language that patriarch Shulem and his grumpy brother Nuchem broke into when talking alone.

But it was also more personal than that. On the show, I heard words that I hadn’t encountered since my childhood, specifically spoken by my late mother, who came from a large, noisy family with Latvian origins. ‘Lobbos’ for a naughty boy — my brother was often the recipient of this term; ‘punim’, for face (or ‘cheiny punim’ for beautiful face). And my favourite: ‘Kim shoin, shinshoin’, for ‘hurry up’. Jeremy recalled his grandparents having whole conversations in Yiddish. Karen had fond memories of talking to her grandfather — he in Yiddish, she in schoolgirl German.

Mostly, it’s because we to want to learn to kvetch and kvell with the best of them.

No-one quite knows the origins of Yiddish, which is thought to have been born around 1,000 CE when Jews speaking Judeao-French and Judaeo-Italian settled in the German-speaking regions of Central Europe. The language was then infused with elements of Hebrew, Aramaic and Slavic. On the eve of the Second World War, up to 13 million people spoke Yiddish. Now, it’s one to two million.

Much of this, clearly, was down to the Holocaust. “This decline in native speakers has been also compounded by the fact that Yiddish has always been a stateless language,” reads the introduction to my textbook, Colloquial Yiddish by Lily Kahn. “Its speakers are dispersed worldwide — in places including Jerusalem, Antwerp and Stamford Hill, London — and in most countries it receives no official recognition or support.”

Before we even start, I’m already feeling emotional.

We students come to Yiddish class with varying levels of language. While Jeremy had a barmitzvah and has read bits and pieces of Hebrew in adult life, I haven’t learned a thing since pre-teen cheder. Karen hasn’t learned the Hebrew alphabet at all. So that may possibly make a full course of lessons tricky to navigate. Olga makes some serious and valid points about how Yiddish isn’t just for comedy value, and she’s right of course: it was a language of commerce, and of wonderful literature such as Isaac Bashevis Singer and I L Peretz.

But, mostly the three of us are there to have some fun and pick up some conversational tips.

Olga acknowledges this, changes tack, and asks us which Yiddish words we know. “Meshuggenah!” I shriek. “VERBLUNGET!”, bellows Jeremy (it means confused). “Schmuck,”offers Karen. Olga tries to bring us back to some sort of sensible compromise: “Vi iz dayn mishpukhe?” (How’s the family), she asks. With our memories of basic German, we are thrilled to understand. We also learn “vos hertz zich” (literally, what is holding you, for ‘how are you’, and “nit schlect” (not bad.)

Amid our laughter, Olga explains that Yiddish is not just a “heritage” tongue, but it’s adapting to the modern world. We are delighted to learn “mobilke” (or celke) for phone. “Vusever” — delivered with a shrug —shows you can also be passive-aggressive in Williamsburg, and Mea Shearim.

“You see,” says Olga at the end of the lesson. “Yiddish is not dying, old and broken. It’s still a living language, full of joy.”

Baruch HaShem!

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