Finding My Chutzpah: Using Yiddish to Reconstruct my Jewish Identity

By Caroline Balick

Art by Lena Kaufferman


I hated being a Jew. In my hometown, I was only one of four Jews in my grade. My classmates constantly reminded me of my differences through sharing ignorant comments. I was often asked why I wore a necklace with the Pi symbol, when it was actually a Chai, which represents “life.” I was once so kindly told that my nose “wasn’t that big for a Jew.” Yes, she meant it as a compliment! Someone once suggested I “step in the shower,” which I initially thought was intended to judge my hygiene, but he clarified by saying, “That was a Jew joke.” When discussing the Holocaust in history class, two girls sitting in front of me turned around, looked at me, and chuckled. A teacher told me his wife was “also part of the tribe.” I have been told to pick up money on the ground. I’ve been told I “look Jewish” — and not in a complimentary way. I’ve been the butt of every Holocaust “joke.” I’ve heard it all.


As much as I wanted to hide my religion growing up, my features prevented me from being able to. I have bold, curly hair, dark features, and the quintessential, European-Jewish bump on my nose. I envied another Jewish girl in my grade who did not have these features: she was tall, with straight, blonde hair — considered gorgeous by traditional American beauty standards. I envied her ability to hide her Judaism behind these features, while my appearance made me a walking target.


It’s important to note that certain aspects of my identity provide me with certain privileges. I identify as white, and I am Eastern European. Additionally, I follow Reform Judaism, which is a strand of Judaism that has more open and relaxed interpretations of the Torah. Jewish women in “more devout” sects, such as Hasidim, typically dress conservatively and cover their hair to some extent. While I experience discrimination based on my religion, I do not present in this manner, therefore my religious identity isn’t always apparent to others.


Nevertheless, others’ contempt for my religion rubbed off on me. I desperately wished I didn’t “look Jewish,” leading me to wish I simply wasn’t Jewish. But at the time, I firmly believed Judaism was a choice, so I knew there was a way out.


My parents required me to attend Hebrew school twice a week from third to seventh grade, until I had my Bat Mitzvah. While this ceremony marks an important beginning in Judaism, for me, it represented the end. After that point, I planned on not engaging with anything relating to Judaism. But I didn’t understand that Judaism was a part of me whether I liked it or not: it was in my blood, and it was only a matter of time before I wouldn’t be able to suppress my identity anymore.



In my junior year of high school, I was accepted into a Jewish leadership program called Diller Teen Fellows that changed how I viewed Judaism. I became extremely close with a group of 20 Jewish teens from my area over the course of a year. Through meaningful conversation and shared experiences within this group, I began to fall in love with my Jewish identity. The program helped me realize that Jews existed — that there were others with similar experiences to me due to our shared identity. I fell in love with so many aspects of my culture; I didn’t feel alone anymore.


Many of our activities in Diller focused on our family histories. To prepare for these sessions, I spoke to my parents to learn about my own. It was through these conversations that I felt not only encouraged to love my Jewish identity but called to. I comprehended how historical efforts to fracture the Jewish people have touched my own family.


Put plainly, my family has been through some rough shit simply due to being Jewish. The family of my mom’s maternal grandmother, Selma, was chased out of Ukraine by a bloody pogrom that wiped her village off the map. She raised my mother along with my mother’s parents in Queens, New York. She made my mother promise to never return to Ukraine.


My maternal grandfather grew up in Leeds, England before World War II began. In an effort to help the Jewish children living in major cities, the British government sent them into the countryside to live with other families. As a result, my grandfather was separated from his family for most of his childhood. Luckily, he lived with a kind family that treated him and his siblings very well; many children in this program did not. Some were sent overseas to Canada — my grandfather and his sister planned to, but they didn’t because she got sick. Germany torpedoed the ship they were supposed to be on and everyone aboard died.


On my father’s side, my great-grandfather, Louis, immigrated from Russia with his six brothers and one sister. At the time, in an attempt to disperse Russian Jews, the Russian army enlisted Jewish men for eight years without letting them ever return to their respective villages. After their service, they were forced to live in villages separate from their families. To avoid this, Louis and his brothers came to Ellis Island with their mother. Their father never joined them.


Although many of my family members escaped religious persecution, their first language did not. All of my great-grandparents, like many Eastern European Jews, spoke Yiddish. Before the Holocaust, there were approximately 11 million Yiddish speakers across Eastern Europe, while today, there are only about 350,000 Yiddish speakers globally.[1] They reside mainly in Israel, Russia, and the United States.[2] It is predominately used in Hasidic communities, typically located in Israel and certain Brooklyn neighborhoods. Many Yiddish speakers in my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations were killed during the Holocaust. Of those who survived or had already immigrated elsewhere, Yiddish was not spoken in order to assimilate.


The latter is the case in my family. My great-grandparents on my dad’s side, Louis and Pauline, were fluent in Yiddish but refused to teach it to their children. They were raising their children in Wilmington, Delaware in an all-Catholic neighborhood. They owned a grocery store and felt they needed to improve their English in order to maintain their business. They felt the only way to do that was to only speak English with their children. While my grandpa can understand Yiddish, as he heard it spoken in his household between his parents and other relatives, he is not a fluent speaker, thus

ending the line of Yiddish speakers on my dad’s side.


My mother grew up with two fluent Yiddish speakers in her home, her grandma and father, but she never learned how to speak it. Her grandmother immigrated to America when she was 12 and worked hard to learn English; speaking Yiddish felt like regressing. While they taught my mother certain phrases, she never heard it fluently spoken in her home growing up, thus ending the line of Yiddish on my mother’s side.


Assimilation in the United States exacerbated an already fractured Jewish community by preventing the continuation of Yiddish. But Yiddish isn’t disappearing completely any time soon, as it is deeply tied to Jewish history, which cannot be changed. The feminist writer Rita Mae Brown said, “Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.” Yiddish connects Jews to the most terrifying moments in our history: it was whispered in the barracks in concentration camps, spoken on ships to a better life, and cried after being expelled from various places we used to call home. Assimilation severs my connection to these events by preventing me from speaking the same language that my ancestors did during those terrifying times. Assimilation made my people lose our voice, and thus impaired our ability to pass down our history.


But, triumphantly, language always finds a way to sneak through, even in the smallest amounts. I cling to these words whenever I hear them. My mother learned numerous Yiddish phrases that her grandmother and father used when speaking to her. “Such a shayna maideleh. You are my naches and gedilla,” my grandmother would tell her, meaning “Such a pretty girl, you are my pride and joy.” I’ve heard plenty of Yiddish words in common language that most are familiar with:



“You want me to walk all the way to Novack? From the gym? That’s such a schlep.


“Don’t be such a schmuck.”


“I don’t need to get into a whole spiel on why I love Collis breakfast sandwiches, but here I go!”


“You’ve got some schmutz on your face, let me wipe it off.”


Many use these words casually without even knowing they’re Yiddish. These words have become so ingrained in colloquial language at this point that no one questions where they came from. I purposefully try to throw these words into my daily use whenever I can to remind people how Jewish I am and to keep the language alive. On occasion, I’ll throw in a couple words and phrases I’ve learned to throw people off too:


“Oy vey I tested positive for COVID. Welp, abi gezunt” (as long as I’m healthy)


“I could never be with a man who only expects me to be a balabuste.” (generally speaking, a woman who is good at domestic tasks)


“I wish I could be more like her, she’s so geshikt!’ (capable)


“I hate when people tell others to just ‘be happy’ when they feel down. Toytn bankes.” (a phrase saying something is unhelpful. It is short for “Es vet helfn vi a toytn bankes,” which means “It will help like cupping a corpse.”)


Over spring break, I realized my obsession to learn Yiddish was growing. I sat down with my parents over dinner and asked them to provide me with every Yiddish phrase they knew so I could write them down and memorize them. Almost every day, I searched Yiddish dictionaries to learn new phrases and wrote them down. I have an ever-expanding note in my phone full of them, from friendly greetings to brutal insults. With each one, I feel more connected to Judaism. While I already have plenty of determination to learn Yiddish, I regularly receive insensitive comments that further motivate me.


While I don’t feel actively persecuted based on my identity, I still get reminded that ignorance towards the Jewish people still exists. For instance, when an acquaintance at Dartmouth discovered I was Jewish, she was utterly shocked and did not hide it at all. She then said, “So you’re Halal, right? And your family is from Israel?” First of all, she meant Kosher, second of all, I’m not even Kosher, and thirdly, my family is from Eastern Europe. When playing Cards Against Humanity at Dartmouth, I’ve found there is always that guy who is a little too excited each time a card joking about the Holocaust comes up. A few weeks ago, an older man in town pointed at me, laughed, and said, “Hi Jewish girl!” I was not wearing any clear Jewish identifiers, so his remark was purely based on stereotypes.


This last remark was the most painful; I felt personally stereotyped, disturbed, seen. If I received this comment in high school, it would have destroyed me. But now, being proud of my Jewish identity, I can channel this comment into honor. Yes, I do have stereotypically Jewish features. But so did my grandparents and great-grandparents, who dealt with stronger forms of persecution than I could ever truly understand. The comments I get and the exclusion my ancestors experienced all stem from the same thing, which is a fear of what we are and our ability to continue our culture.


Yiddish helps me define my Jewish identity. I don’t learn it with the intention of speaking fluently — fluency isn’t always the goal when learning a new language. I learn how to speak the language of my family in order to keep the Jewish culture alive. I sprinkle these words into conversation as a way to honor my ancestors and spite those who tried to eliminate us. I speak Yiddish to remind those filled with ignorance that we are still here. In the face of antisemitism, my relatives prevailed, as will I. So keep it coming; these experiences only give me more chutzpah.





Notes:

[1] “Yiddish FAQs,” Rutgers University Department of Jewish Studies, April 23, 2022, https://jewishstudies.rutgers.edu/yiddish/102-department-of-jewish-studies/yiddish/159-yiddish-faqs#:~:text=It%20is%20estimated%20that%20there,the%20eve%20of%20the%20Holocaust.

[2] “Heritage Language Spotlights: Yiddish,” Heritage Languages in America, Center for Applied Linguistics, April 23, 2022, https://www.cal.org/heritage/yiddish.html#:~:text=The%20primary%20language%20of%20Ashkenazic,the%20United%20States%20and%20Canada.