Commentary Magazine


On Not Knowing Yiddish

“Speak to it in Yiddish,” I kept hearing
From the time I climbed out of my
    crib and
Almost broke my skull. It was the same in
Kindergarten, first and second grades, then
High school, college, talking to my friends
    just
Back from Europe, always taking language
Tests, always horrified by grammar,
Missing punch-lines, reading tales that
    were insipid
Due to losses in translation.

When I first started chattering in ink
My parents had my I.Q. framed inside
Their heads, until, distracted by the noise
That forged the syntax of my ancestors
Into a frieze above the kitchen sink,
I stood still, dabbing with a dish-rag,
Wondering what to say to all my relatives
Who spoke so well, whose presents
    overwhelmed
My thank-you notes, lamenting that
    I was
Too shy for playing the piano.

They made of me a dilettante who blunders
Through the most diverse of dictionaries,
Learning to pronounce peculiar sounds
To pave the cracks which formed soon
    after I
Was frightened into speech.
                                     From all their talk
I gained a slight inflection; yet I still
Converse with people—in the subway, in
The park—and counting peanuts for the
Elephants (one must be fair) is not
Too difficult for my distempered mind.
I have decided that to love one language
Is enough, and though I’ll scan Roget
Until I die, I’ll read the rest of mankind
In translation, while the linguists try
   to find
New bed-time stories to explain the night.

_____________

 

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