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My Trampoline Hall Lecture on Yiddish Proverbs, Loss, my Mother and Home
Tonight I did a lecture for Trampoline Hall. I was pretty fricking nervous, but there ya go. Here is the text of my lecture:


I have a friend named Dan. When were in our early 20s in Montreal, he spoke and moved exactly like an old Jewish man – it helped that he had a bit of a limp from a ski injury. I remember him sidling up to the counter at Wilensky's – a landmark of old Jewish Montreal - ordering an egg cream and a special, and dropping Yiddish expressions with a raised finger for emphasis, like a real zayde.

When I started collecting Yiddish proverbs for this lecture, I came across this expression:

Vi ainer iz tsu Ziben, azoi iz er tsu zibetsik. As a man is at 7 so is he at 70.

And I immediately thought to call Dan, who according to Facebook, had just had his third child. After we caught up, I asked him about his fixation with yiddishkeit that had gripped him so young, and here's what he had to say:

When he was a kid, he was surrounded by Yiddish speakers – his parents spoke in Yiddish with his grandparents, who were holocaust survivors. It wasn't until he was near bar-mitzvah age that he truly grasped that Yiddish was no longer a vibrant culture, but the ghost of one. And this shook him to the core.

He began to immerse himself in remembering. He lived in a neighbourhood affectionately called "Cote Saint Jew" and he says he would shadow old people at the local Cavendish Mall - just to hear them speak Yiddish. This became a full-blown obsession when, at 15, he went on a trip called March of the Living, where high school kids visit concentration camps in Poland and learn of the vanished communities and how they met their ends. Oy.

Years later, Dan was at a wedding in Paris for an old friend he'd served with in the Israeli army. He'd taken time that trip to visit le Marais, which had been the heart of the Jewish community pre-world-war II. And that night he went to the wedding with a heavy heart.

After the ceremony, the band played the obligatory hora, and then played another Yiddish chestnut called "Sha, Shtil."

And nobody got up to dance. Because nobody recognized the tune. And Dan turned to the father of the groom, with tears in his eyes and said: "How can you stand it? All the rich Jewish culture that once thrived here has vanished. And now, no one even remembers the songs!"

The Father of the groom was a gentle man who also happened to be a therapist with a specialty. He asked him if he had ever heard of transgenerational trauma. It's when the trauma of one generation — it can be as sprawling as the holocaust, as contained as a car accident — is infused wordlessly into the next.

And it can last generations. Suddenly a lightbulb went on in Dan's head.

He noticed that certain friends in what he calls his "Yiddish circles" also shared the same symptoms. Guilt, anger, anxiety, a profound sense of loss, and an overwhelming sentimentality for Yiddish culture. And he not only talked to them about it, but he went to a therapist because he was worried about passing it on to his own children.

The therapist calmed him, telling him that he was celebrating his culture in a healthy way, but to treat the language as something living, not a resurrection of ghosts.

These days, He speaks to all three of his children in Yiddish, and meets regularly with a Yiddish singing group he helped found. And he subscribes to the Forward, the last Yiddish language paper. Although he still talks and moves like a zayde.


Unlike Dan, my own experience was far more assimilated. I grew up in Vancouver, and if you know your Canadian Jewish communities at all well, you'll know that the Vancouver tribe probably boasts the worst bagels in all of North America, sub-par pastrami, and little to no Yiddish culture. Reading Mordecai Richler novels with the shoulder-shrugging schelppers and mouthy immigrant inflections was enticing but foreign. We're kind of the WASPY Jews of Canada.

We lived in Oakridge, which is right on the fringes of a real WASPy enclave, Shaughnessy with its grand old homes. When my mom would pick me and my sisters up from school, she would drive slowly past these mansions and peer through the windows. She'd be transported to a fantasy plane, muttering to herself about what she'd do differently if that were her home, wondering what kind of people lived in those places.

Which brings me to our next proverb: Ask about your neighbours, then buy the house. – I lost the Yiddish version to this one, hope you don't mind.

When we moved to Toronto in '86, she got her real estate license and finally got a chance to see inside those grand homes. For 25 years, she schlepped real estate signs, buzzed with pagers and cell phones, walked up and down countless flights of stairs and saying to people things like: "Not much charm right now, but good bones." And before people made an offer, she'd recommend: "Just drive over this evening, park your car, and walk around the neighbourhood and look in windows of other houses and see what kind of people live in there. Get a feel for the street."



She did really well as an agent, but didn't have much financial SECHEL – that's Yiddish for common sense. By 60 she had no security, no home. A couple of years ago, she started to hint heavily about all the lovely Chinese and Italian families that lived 3 generations in one household. "It works so well because the grandparents take care of the grandkids!" I tried to laugh it off, but Chris, my guy pointed out that one day we would have figure out a way to have her live with us.

This one IS a Yiddish proverb, but it's been so widely co-opted that I know you will recognize it: Mann tracht, Got lakht. Man plans, God laughs.

Before we could plan for it, the "one day" happened. In February 2010, my mother was diagnosed with a rare cancer that had metastasized. They call these kinds of cancer the "whisper cancer" because they sneak up on you and then BAM they show themselves in all their malignant glory. And by then it is too late. You can kind of buy time with chemo. Months? Maybe years? We didn't know. But what we did know was that she couldn't sustain her rent if she was going to be really sick. And she needed to be with family. She needed a home. She needed to live with us.


There is a Yiddish Proverb that sounds a bit Yoda-ish:

Az me muz, ken men.

When one must, one can.

And this is the spirit with which we embraced our decision. It was so emotional, so hard to know what we were getting into, but as we sat for the 25th hour in emergency, my awesome partner Chris looked at me bravely and said "this is what need to do."

And so she moved in with us. It was so Old World. And everyone who was from a traditional family seemed to think this was a GREAT idea. My butcher started to treat me with more respect when he found out we'd taken my mom in, and he stopped staring at my chest. Even people from non-traditional homes would squeeze me on the shoulder and say: "you're doing the Right Thing." For a while we felt illuminated by a nimbus of tender and compassionate light. And for a while, being seen as that person felt, selfishly, wonderful.

I like this old proverb, and it's one that a rabbi I spoke with pointed out as one of his favourites: Tsedokeh zol kain gelt nisht kosten, volten geven di velt fil tsadikim

If charity cost nothing, the world would be full of philanthropists.

Not that this was charity, but this ‘good thing' we were doing came at a price. When we lived with my mom, our house no longer felt like home. We stopped having friends over, stopped playing our music, and - this is kind of egotistical to admit - but we thought our happiness and values would rub off on her! But instead we all succumbed to this bottomless gloom.

One day, where we were rocking out in the living room, dancing up a storm with our 3-year-old, we looked up and saw my mom smiling tensely in the doorway, unsure how to engage. Come on and join us! She sat on the sofa and watched with us dancing with such a sad expression, that soon we couldn't dance anymore.

There was so much intimacy through the proximity of shared space - we shared a bathroom where her dainties hung from the shower rod, her wig sat on a stand in the kitchen - but our ability to be intimate with each other was failing. All the moments I had imagined lying in bed with her, talking about life and joys and regrets - they never materialized.

BUT if ever a proverb rang more true to this day, it would be this:

Oib di velt vet verren oislaytst, eez es nor in schus fun kinder. – if the world will ever be redeemed, it will be through the merit of children


Thank God for children, because our little boy seemed relatively unaffected by all the subtext and illness, and he would climb into bed with her every morning, and it brought her so much joy. And when we sat for dinner together, struggling to be cheerful, he would burst into happy song or whine about the food. It didn't matter. He brought everyone back into the present, and gave us something joyful to focus on.

This not a Yiddish proverb, but it should be one: If grandchildren knew how much the comfort of others rested on their shoulders, surely they'd crumble under the pressure.

When we talk about Yiddish proverbs, we also talk about loss and a longing for home.

My friend Mia spent this summer in Vilnius, Lithuania, studying Yiddish language. Vilnius – once called Vilna to the Jews who lived there - was the heart of the Jewish enlightenment and modern Yiddish culture before World War II.

The city had been 40 per cent Jewish. The local cafes once burst with Yiddish culture, writers were composing edgy modernist poetry and manifestos. At a certain café, you could buy one of 30 Yiddish magazines from across Europe.

Everyone she studied with was trying to reconcile ideas of this rich past with a somewhat muted present. A place that was once housed a vibrant Jewish community, no longer felt like a home. Some were trying to outrun those ghosts by infusing life into this language.

She told me about a Yiddish term, "benkshaft" a word that encapsulates longing and nostalgia. It's a ‘hurts so good' kind of concept, where you tell the story of your loss, but there is also laughter in that loss, a beautiful universality to the sentiment.

Yiddish was a hybrid language – it took a little bit of Hebrew, a lot of old German, a smattering of Slavic tongues and occasionally a bit of French and became its own language that described the here and now for each generation …. And often with an undercurrent of Benkshaft – nostagia and longing for the way we wish things had turned out.



Which brings me to our final proverb of the night:

Tsu itlechen nayem leed, ken men tsu passen ahn alten niggen

In a new verse, you can always fit in an old tune.

I hadn't realized it before my mom got sick. It had been my habit to seek out "benkshaft" in life, to smooth out spikier episodes or to soothe heartache. It's not inaccurate to say I wallowed in sad songs — when I felt like crap, they made me feel better.

When my mother was dying, that changed. Every tune that had uplifted me or given me a frisson of sweet melancholy felt artificial and wrong.

Even nostalgia felt off. When I found myself reflexively scouring my memory for good childhood moments to retell, my mother would push them away. "Remember that time we walked down to English Bay and had souvlaki? And we sat on the bench by the water, and I put my head in your lap, and you stroked my hair, and we watched the water until it got dark?"

My mom shook her head at me. Closed her eyes and turned away, impatient and a bit pissed off, as if I'd pulled open the blinds without warning.


You know, already, how I wish things had turned out. It's all done. This place, this time. This is where we live now.


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9.12.2011
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9/12/2011
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