Bist a Yid?
Back at the beginning of the 1950s—memory suggests—the world was all in Technicolor and it never rained in summer. Nat King Cole headed the hit parade with “They Try to Tell Us We’re Too Young,” Tottenham Hotspur was top of the football league and Newcastle United beat Blackpool to the Football Association cup. Butter, meat and sweets were still rationed in Britain and the average weekly wage was around £7, though you could buy a house for under five hundred. Money was tight, particularly pocket money. When the weather was fine, schoolboys like me would save our bus fares for fizzy drinks and walk the couple of miles to school instead.
Our school in north-west London drew its pupils from a wide and diverse area. Every morning, teenage boys—in the rigidly enforced uniform of grey flannel trousers, school blazers and caps (plus satchels and shining morning faces)—could be seen converging on the red-brick Victorian building like wildlife towards a waterhole. We assembled from every part of the suburb: many poorer boys from the working-class terraces leading off the busy, grimy high street, middle-class pupils from upper-bracket apartment blocks with pretentious names like Grosvenor Mansions, and a small number of rich kids from spacious six-bedroomed detached houses with carriage drives, double garages and acres of garden. One young turbaned Sikh was daily delivered to the school gates by chauffeur-driven Bentley. He was the exception; by far the largest religious minority were Jews, for whom Britain’s post-war grammar schools offered the irresistible attraction of a free quasi-public-school education.
Back in those days, there was little town-and-gown trouble. True, gangs of adolescent roughnecks did gather in the seedier parts of the district, but we all knew which routes to avoid and which were safe. For some of us, however, there was one peril that was much harder to escape. A section of my route took me through one of the wealthier areas, along streets lined by big houses with wrought-iron gates and plaster-pillared porticoes, past flowery front gardens, tennis courts and recreation grounds—a mock-rural setting which still somehow recalled the real orchards, market gardens and country villas of no more than a generation or two earlier. It was just before entering this quiet would-be pastoral neighbourhood that menace lurked for young Jewish boys like me—a danger that could result in a severe beating.
If we kept our wits about us and our eyes open, we could catch sight of the threat: a group of apparently respectable middle-aged men in dark suits, loitering around the entrance to the alley which led to the local synagogue. If we were quick enough, we could take rapid evasive action. But teenage boys are much given to dreaming, and the long walk to school was the perfect opportunity to let our imaginations wander, leaving our mental autopilots to look after the practical business of working our legs and navigating them towards our destination. All too often a boy would accidentally stray within range of one of the prowlers, who would instantly dash across the road and pounce on his victim. Usually the first a boy would know of his fate was the feel of a hand grasping his shoulder and the dreaded sound of the ominous whisper: “Pssst! Bist a Yid?” and he would know that it was all up for him.
The phrase is Yiddish for Are you a Jew? The boy had been captured by one of the synagogue’s minyan-shleppers, those charged with the duty of dragging (shlepping) a quorum of ten ritually adult males (a minyan) into the synagogue so that morning service could begin.
I hasten to explain that our reluctance to be caught like this was not prompted by any anti-religious feeling or atheist belief. On the contrary, many of those targeted would have only recently celebrated their religious coming of age, their barmitzvah, and, still enthusiastic, would already have dutifully recited the required morning prayers at home. No, the entirely practical problem was that waiting for the rest of the minyan to collect and then taking part in the service threatened to make us late for school, which in those days could still be, and all too often was, a caning offence.
No doubt the shleppers spoke in Yiddish so that gentiles wouldn’t understand. On us boys, though, it had a different, subtler, perhaps even unintended effect. Had we been asked in English, we’d have been able to argue back, to explain about the penalty for missing morning assembly; about the French homework we had to catch up on before the next lesson; about the early morning rugby football practice, being late for which would earn us a hefty and extremely painful kick up the backside from our games master’s sadistic boot. But in Yiddish? You couldn’t even begin to talk about such things; they would be quite meaningless. The Yiddish world-view gave no weight at all to school assemblies, French homework or rugby football; it had quite other priorities and totally different values. And the Yiddish language protected this world like a high and unbreachable wall. Once captured and brought inside the language barrier, there was no way for a schoolboy to import his mundane and, to the Yiddish world, irrelevant concerns.
Yiddish excluded not just the gentile world, but other Jews as well. While all Jews share the same religious background and all honour the Torah (the Five Books of Moses), and recognise the Talmud (the compilation of centuries of rabbinical wisdom, like Emerson’s “amassed thought and experience of innumerable minds”), their cultures and languages are diverse. The shlepper’s words would have meant nothing to the old- established Sephardic community of England, who had first arrived in Cromwell’s day, having ultimately come—via a sojourn in the Netherlands—from Moorish Spain. They would have meant no more to Mizrachi (Eastern) Jews from Arab lands, nor to those from Iran, Central Asia or India. Linguistically assimilated Jews from Italy and France, however pious, would have been left in ignorance too. Even Bavarians and Austrians would only have understood because—I was going to write “by chance” but of course it isn’t—the question sounds the same in Yiddish and Austrian dialect. For though such folk might be Jewish, they were no part of the Yiddish world. The minyan- shleppers’ words were aimed solely at “our folks,” indzere leyt as they would have said, Jewish families who had migrated from Poland, Lithuania, Hungary, Romania, Russia and the Ukraine—the Yiddish territories collectively known as der heym (the homeland)—and settled in Britain during the previous seventy years.
This was not my first introduction to the rather unsettling idea that different people, though they might inhabit the same place at the same time, could perceive reality in absolutely different ways. As an immigrant child, I was always aware that for a long time after our arrival in England my parents lived in a quite different land from mine. The front door of our apartment marked a boundary between worlds, as sharp as the barbed wire then newly dividing Europe. Inside our flat was pre-war Baden, a small spa town near Vienna. Outside was post-war London. By the time I was ten years old I had absorbed from my parents’ conversations an entire imagined landscape, clear as day to me, made up of familiar street names and well-known landmarks. Though I had left Austria before I was two, I felt as if I myself had often walked up Baden’s Braitner Street to the plague memorial in the main square, strolled the Kurpark and eaten ice cream by the Undine fountain, climbed the hillside up to Putschaner’s Cave, gone on outings to Helena’s valley, with its two ruined castles, and visited the family factory at Guntramsdorf—and all without leaving our dismal, rain-stained concrete block of flats in north-west London. The ease with which I still recall the names sixty years later is witness to how thoroughly my parents’ memories became my own. (No doubt the same easy familiarity with places never actually seen applies to all immigrant families. The British-born waiters in my local Balti restaurant surely know every house and alley, mosque and madraseh of their ancestral village in Bangladesh.)
The Yiddish world too had its own special topography, dotted with towns like Chelm, Lemberg and Pinsk and Belz, famed in Yiddish legend and song, and peopled by mysterious, but revered, personalities like the Ba’al Shem Tov, the Vilna Gaon and the Satmarer Rebbe, and great families like the Landaus, the Brodys and the Rappaports. I had to get to know this world, as did even non-Jewish classmates in our circle, for we had friends whose grandparents—and even parents, though British-born and belonging to the next generation after the mass immigration at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth—still maintained many of the customs and values of their eastern European places of family origin, still prayed in strongly Yiddish-accented Hebrew and still spoke Yiddish at home.
Talk was, however, not conducted exclusively in that language. By now this generation was native English-speaking and would switch with ease between English and Yiddish, depending on the subject. The language chosen could tell the listener much about the speakers’ feelings: business and politics would always be argued about in Yiddish—after all, they shared much the same vocabulary: gonif (thief), shvindler (cheat), farbrecher (crook); so would domestic matters like food, clothes, personal feelings
and other people’s appearance: sheynere ligt men in drerd (they bury better-looking people). English seems to have been felt more appropriate for discussing technical issues, like why the farsholtener (damned) car wouldn’t start that morning, as well as those matters considered to have high status like visits to a doctor or a teacher; I don’t remember questions about my school work ever being asked in Yiddish. Surprisingly enough, the same applied to religious affairs. True, our community’s rabbi did give regular Yiddish discourses, but in most homes Hebrew religious terms would stand out from their mostly English-language setting: chazzen (cantor), sidder (prayer book), kiddish (a celebratory blessing after the end of Sabbath Service, when small boys would sneak off with slices of honey cake and tiny glasses of whisky, cherry brandy or advokaat). The details of sex were, of course, not to be mentioned in either tongue, while for telling jokes everyone agreed that the language of the gentiles was a very poor substitute.
Consciousness of the distinction between Jew and non-Jew, mostly ignored in English, was always present in Yiddish conversations. The Jewish religion is much given to binary classification: dividing days of the calendar between holy and profane, food between milk and meat, meat between kosher and treyf (non-kosher), textiles between wool and linen, Jews between priestly families (Cohens and Levys) and the rest (Israel). So people too were either Yidn (Jews) or goyim (gentiles), a word borrowed from the plain biblical Hebrew expression for nation, goy—plural goyim—(gentiles); adjective goyish (typically gentile); abstract noun goyishness (being drunk in the street and throwing up in the gutter). As with Hindi and Urdu gora (white person) or Romany gajé (non-Roma), the word goy itself has only mild pejorative overtones. To turn it into a real insult, East End Cockney back slang was used. Modelled on the reversal of boy to yob, goy became yog (pronounced and re-spelled yock), a suitable word for the crude louts who would shout obscenities and throw stones at us on our way to Saturday synagogue. But even yock could be used with some ironic affection. A close friend’s grandmother believed that British Sunday dinner consisted of roast beef and yockisher pudding.
It goes without saying that this was a religious world, but in the uncomplicated, unselfconscious manner of a traditional society rather than the stiff piety of committed believers. Religious duties were fulfilled because that was the way things were always done, rather than because they were commanded by God. One attended the synagogue on Sabbaths and holidays because that was where one went at those times. And—how different from the tight-lipped devotions of the churchgoers I knew—having done their duty by turning up, many in the congregation would continue to gossip, tell jokes and discuss business all the way through the long service. So much so that often on Saturday mornings, the conversational hubbub rose so loud that rabbi and beadle were driven to slamming down the lids of their reading desks and calling for silence, so that the cantor’s prayers might be audible at least to heaven. Similar feelings surrounded the Jewish dietary code. Unkosher food and the mixing together of milk and meat products were strictly avoided not so much because of Jewish religious law, but because the very idea of eating such foods as pork or shellfish, or veal braised in cream, was as nauseating and repulsive as are maggots or sheep’s eyeballs to English taste.
All this was quite a contrast to my own parents’ religious attitudes, which were far more cerebral, scriptural and legalistic—my mother having come from a Nikolsburg (now called Mikulov, Moravia) clan with strong rabbinical connections. And that was not the only difference, for each side viewed the other with suspicion and disdain. Those like my family—Jews from Vienna, where they had made up nearly ten per cent of the pre-war population—now saw themselves as a double minority, outnumbered both by gentiles and also by the Yiddish speakers. They suspected the English Yiddish speakers of having profited from the Nazi war and accused them of having done little or nothing to help their co-religionists in their hour of need, seeing them as unreconstructed, ignorant medievalists, their language a barbaric jargon, their religious beliefs hardly distinguishable from vulgar superstition and liable to give the noble aspirations of Judaism a bad name. The Yiddish speakers viewed recent German and Austrian immigrants like us as assimilated apostates, hardly a step away from conversion to Christianity, and blamed the Holocaust on our adoption of modern western ways, denouncing us—in a marvellously antiquated insult—as apikoyres (literally: Epicureans).
As a youngster, I had regularly to negotiate these three quite different environments, which seemed to me then almost like parallel universes. Invited to a friend’s house for tea, I would leave the continental 1930s at home in the morning, spend my school day in 1950s London, and after lessons enter the Yiddish world of . . . when? It was impossible to put a date on an outlook that appeared both up-to-date and antique, both contemporary and timeless.
It wasn’t just that the Yiddish-speakers seemed to live one part of their lives perfectly normally in modern Britain—actively and successfully involved in business or the professions—and the other part in some unfathomable eternal world of their own. But that, unlike German, Austrian, French and Italian, or even Sephardic Jews, they seemed to have no history. Or, to be more exact, no interest in or recollection of people and places outside their own very recent family traditions. Moreover, many didn’t know the names of the east European towns from which their families had emigrated, and some had even forgotten what their family names had been before being anglicised to something that the blunt English tongue could more easily negotiate—and, what is more, they didn’t seem to care. Twice dislocated, first from the European heym to London’s East End—where they had originally settled close to their point of arrival in the docks—and in the next generation out to the suburbs, most of the Yiddish families I knew seemed to have abandoned their past altogether.
Excerpted from Yiddish Civilisation by Paul Kriwaczek. Copyright © 2006 by Paul Kriwaczek. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.