Yiddish Opera & Memories of My Grandparents

Grandma & GrandpaLast night I went to a Yiddish operetta with my daughter, husband, and parents. This morning, I really miss my grandparents.

They’ve been gone most of my life–my grandfather passing away when I was 14 and my grandmother a little more than a year later. I barely knew them and for years I was jealous that my other siblings, especially my oldest sister who is 6 years older than me, had so much more time with them.

The truth is, they didn’t make themselves knowable. They weren’t accessible to their grandchildren as people in their own right, with life stories. They doted on us as grandparents but any time we’d ask them their history, we’d be met with “Ach, better you don’t know.” My sister managed to get an oral history recording from my grandmother once, which was a breakthrough.

In truth, I undervalued them as only kids can do, not knowing you’ll reach a point in your life when you wish you could do it all over.

My family’s history is an immigrant’s story: They’re very much the same generally, but so very different specifically. Ours is not a unique story, especially among Jews. Fleeing persecution in the old country; emigrating to New York City; jobs in the garment industry; a move to the chicken farms in Toms River, New Jersey; a high valuation on education; a first-generation college graduate. Yet, parts of it are uniquely ours and points of pride.

My grandmother fled the Cossacks first–getting a job as a seamstress on the Lower East Side and saving enough money to then bring her husband over. Putting her past behind her was best represented by her move to take July 4, 1900 as her birthdate in her new land. I’d like to think that some of my tenacity is inherited directly from her. I knew her only as an owl-eyed, white-haired woman in a house dress, pressing food on us constantly and exhorting us to “Eat. Eat!”. My grandfather in my mind is best represented by a bowtie and a cigar, which he would smoke and then leave in the cradling hooks on his apartment mailbox meant for the newspaper. To this day, cigar smoke reminds me of him.

I was awkward around them. I hated having to talk to them on the phone because there never seemed to be anything I could say to them. In truth, I undervalued them as only kids can do, not knowing you’ll reach a point in your life when you wish you could do it all over, the right way, the adult way. I know it’s the natural progression of things–I watch my kids do it with my parents and encourage them to listen to the stories and tuck them away for the days when the stories can no longer be told. Youth knows no patience though, and you can’t appreciate what there is to lose until its wholly beyond your reach.

So, last night I went to a Yiddish operetta with my daughter, husband, and parents. Serendipitously, I had first heard about it on a friend’s Facebook feed. I was looking for a present for my dad’s milestone birthday and my husband encouraged me to buy the tickets. My dad’s parents spoke mostly Yiddish, though they painstakingly taught themselves English in the years after they emigrated from Poland in the late 1920s. Their go-to language would remain Yiddish, however, just as we all take comfort in the language of our youth.

Di Golden Kale was being performed locally at Rutgers University’s Nicholas Music Center on the Douglass campus (my alma mater). It was performed by the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene, along with a 20-piece orchestra from Mason Gross School of the Arts. The orchestra had me from the opening notes and when the singers first opened their mouths, I had a big grin on my face. The singing was beautiful–lush even. I saw my dad’s hand reach out to grab my mom’s and, if it was possible, I smiled even more.

I was saddened to know that we were observing a language in its final death throes…

The production was simple, with the orchestra in the middle of the stage, the chorus behind them on a small bleacher-like apparatus and the solo singers having microphones up front (along with the narrator). When they didn’t have a part, the singers had seats along the back. There was a large screen that served as a backdrop and it also had the translation in English and Russian.

When I tried to just focus on the singers up front and not look at the supertitles, I missed what was happening. My dad said he shut his eyes a few times and tried to follow the Yiddish, but he only could pick out about 5-10% of it. I recognized basic phrases I’d heard my whole life: ze gazint, shayna maydela (my grandmother called me that all the time and it always makes my heart ache for her–it means beautiful girl), meshuggah, and a few more. A man two people to my dad’s right obviously understood it all and he was having a great time, laughing and clapping.

Becky was one of about four kids I saw in the entire audience and Doug and I were some of the youngest attendees as well. The rest of them were about my parent’s age. I was glad to know they were all enjoying themselves, and likely reminiscing about their youth. But I was saddened to realize that we were observing a language in its final death throes. There are small injections of hope, such as this production, but the last generation of people who remember Yiddish and its vitality are quickly dying out. The language will soon lie down and not get up again.

For us, though, it was a beautiful night with music and family and memories. I learned things about my grandparents I hadn’t yet known and I’m pretty sure we gave my dad a nice, but poignant, trip down Memory Lane. I also hope that this becomes a memory, a snapshot in time, that my daughter carefully preserves in her own memory book for many years to come.

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