Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Yiddish Song and Klezmer

Sitting around the dinner table recently, my son Daniel (11 years old) asked the rest of us what single superpower each of us would choose if we could only choose one. He went first, and predictably, he chose the power to choose an unlimited number of superpowers. His sister Lily (13 years old) immediately disqualified him based on his own stated criteria. Once they stopped arguing, I made my choice, which was easy. I no longer want to be able to fly (where would I fly to in these days of COVID? and where would I put my carry-on?), and the thought of being able to make myself invisible strikes way to close to the reality of my career as a composer. My choice: I want to be able to speak (and read, if written) every language – past and present – ever spoken, including hump-back whale, crow, and porpoise (color me “Dr. Bob-Doolittle”). How incredible would it be to be linguistically at home anywhere, with anyone! How fantastic it would be to be able to read everything in its “original!”

Nothing cuts to the essence of a culture like its language. A tribe’s, a people’s, a nation’s music is an outward extrapolation of its language: its grammar, its phonetics, its accent patterns, and its expressive soul. How beyond amazing would it be to be able to listen to any music – vocal or instrumental – and hear it in the context of the language of its creator!

For very personal reasons, of all the languages I wish I could speak and read, Yiddish – the German-derived language spoken by Ashkenazic (Central and Eastern European) Jews is at the top of my list. (For our information, despite its Germanic roots, Yiddish is written using Hebrew characters, and thus is read from right-to-left.) My grandparents, though all born in the New York metropolitan area, all spoke Yiddish because it was the language spoken at home by their Belorussian immigrant parents (my great-grandparents on both sides). Yiddish was still a presence when I was growing up. When my grandparents didn’t want us kids to understand what they were saying they’d switch to Yiddish. My mother’s father read The Jewish Daily Forward, New York’s Yiddish language newspaper (first printed in 1897 and still in business) to the day he died. (For our further information, My grandparents didn’t call it “Yiddish”; they called the language “Jewish”, because that’s what “Yiddish” means in Yiddish!)

In many ways, Yiddish and English (particularly American English) are sibling languages. While each is derived from German, they are fused with a tremendous amount of vocabulary and syntactical characteristics drawn from other languages. American English is a reflection of the melting pot, combining various European, African, Hispanic, and native influences into an incredibly flexible, incredibly expressive, dynamic (and incredibly complex!) language. Ditto Yiddish, which fuses with its German roots elements of Hebrew, Aramaic, various Slavic and even Romance languages.…

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