When I was young child, I picked up a paperback book that was sitting open – face down, so that you could tell it was being actively read — on a bottom shelf in my grandparents’ apartment. I distinctly remembered the title as Red Pomegranates but of course it turned out to be Royte Pomerantsen: Jewish Folk Humor in Transliterated Yiddish. I remember opening the book and discovering, to my surprise, that I couldn’t understand a word in it. It was my first exposure to transliteration. I tried to ask my grandmother about it but she kept changing the subject. It was not until many years later that I put two and two together and understood what had so embarrassed her. First of all, I was not supposed to know that she understood Yiddish. Hebrew was respectable. She used to tell me how her mother had hired a Hebrew tutor for her when she was a child – since cheder was not an option for her. Second, even if she did understand Yiddish, she did not allow it to be spoken in her presence for fear that my grandfather would participate in the conversation and outsiders would realize that he was Polish (I have no idea how to transliterate the pronunciations she feared – Pylish is a sound that resonates in my memory – and I’m sure my transliteration is not YIVO clal). Grandma Belle (nee Rivka) fancied herself an English lady (I believe the family was in residence in Whitechapel for the time it took my great-grandmother to give birth). Third, if she was going to read Yiddish, she certainly should have been reading it in the original alphabet. But finally, I think the most embarrassing part of it all for her, was that she thought humor – especially Jewish humor – was undignified. That was my grandfather’s department. Her role was to ridicule his humor. It was not, in fact, until the “knaidel” controversy arose this week that I discovered that Royte Pomerantsen was a book of humor! I let my grandmother go to her grave having me believe that she read theology in Yiddish because I was certain that the book must have been about the Torah being like a pomegranate (I was a recently ordained rabbi when she died). Such are the blessings of early memory.
This all came back to me, of course, early one morning last week when I heard young Arvind Mahankali on the news being asked to spell the word “knaidel” and said indignantly to my husband, “they can’t say there’s one correct spelling for that in English!” Of course, knaidel or kneydl, or kneydel or however you spell it doesn’t exactly have pristine Yiddish roots either. Go to any good Czech restaurant with no Jewish roots whatsoever and ask for knaydlach. They won’t be made out of matzah meal but you’ll recognize them (though according to Google the proper pronunciation and spelling would be knedlíky).
Something resonated deep in my emotions when Arvind Mahankali won the spelling bee on a word that embarrassed my grandmother. Grandma Belle succeeded in raising two thoroughly assimilated children. I don’t know how she would have reacted to me finding my way back to Yiddish. She was proud and delighted that I became a rabbi – a good, American-style rabbi. But I could never get her to open up about her Yiddish connections. I wasn’t trying to get back at her for keeping Yiddish from our family. I was just trying to get back to my grandfather who never saw me become a rabbi – the grandfather with the living Jewish Folk Humor. Was Royte Pomerantsen my grandmother’s Fifty Shades of Grey?