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Mamaloshen (mother tongue)

Yiddish speakers share nostalgia, knowledge

Created date

February 21st, 2012

Ma, why don t you speak English? Marcia Kestenbaum recalls asking her Yiddish-speaking mother one day during childhood, in Medway, Mass. Her mother, busy painting a chair, answered, If I don t teach you Yiddish, who will? It was a question that answered itself, Marcia says decades later, in her apartment home at Brooksby, the Erickson Living community in Peabody, Mass. Marcia s mother immigrated to the U.S. from a town near Kiev, Ukraine, at age 16. Marcia s father emigrated from Odessa, Russia, at age 5. Both brought the Yiddish language with them. Yiddish is a language traditionally spoken by Ashkenazi Jews. A mixture of High German and Hebrew, with influences from Slavic and Romance languages, Yiddish has made its way into modern American, English-speaking culture in the form of words like tchotchke, klutz, and maven. For Marcia and others who were brought up in Yiddish-speaking households, Yiddish is the mamaloshen, or mother tongue, and a source of nostalgia. Marcia shares this, and her knowledge of the language, with others who live at Brooksby, in her twice monthly discussion group, Learn and Laugh with Yiddish/English.

Teaching tradition

Marcia brings seasoned abilities with her to Brooksby. A long-time high school teacher, she continued teaching in retirement, conducting interactive programs with cruise ship passengers on topics from creative listening to how to record family histories through interviews. Since moving to Brooksby from New Jersey in 2003, Marcia has presented about various elements of Jewish history and culture. At Brooksby, and as part of the nearby Explorers Lifelong Learning Institute of Salem State University, Marcia presented Wizards of Wit: How Jewish Comedians Transformed Comedy in America and Captains of Comics: How Jewish Guys Started the Comic Book Industry in America, among other popular presentations. Jewish comics really taught us all, Marcia says, naming Sid Caesar as one of the exemplary Jewish comedians. All comedians should know Yiddish, she adds.

Learning and laughter

Brooksby is an interfaith community, with organized Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish groups and services. Within Brooksby s large and active Jewish population of around 275 people, about 15% to 20% speak some level of Yiddish, says Amely Smith, who lives at Brooksby and leads its Jewish Council. Knowing Marcia spoke Yiddish, Amely approached her more than a year ago to ask if she would consider leading the Learn and Laugh group at Brooksby. We were lucky to get her because she speaks a beautiful Yiddish, Amely says. We are learning a lot from her. She always has something interesting; she really puts a lot of effort into it. In Yiddish, then in English, Marcia sets the mood at the beginning of each meeting with a Biblical proverb: A merry heart doeth good, like medicine, but a broken spirit drieth the bones. Introductions follow, with attendees giving their Yiddish and then English names. Marcia describes the meetings as a potpourri of activities and topics. Meetings typically attract between 10 and 20 people, and, depending on the attendees level of Yiddish knowledge, Marcia may speak entirely in Yiddish or offer Yiddish followed by English translations. Attendees learn from her, but Marcia says the group s meetings are not strictly language instruction courses. Animated and energetic, Marcia speaks passionately and proudly about Jewish history and culture. During group meetings she often shows funny YouTube videos featuring Jewish comedians and dancers and leads the group in singing and dancing. A believer in critical thinking, Marcia also presents historical information for discussion, but the mixture of topics are all designed to maintain a healthy balance of nostalgia and knowledge, capricious and solemn, Marcia says. Marcia s group is not limited to those of the Jewish faith, but she says most attendees come because they want to hear the old mamaloshenthat they heard when they were young, she says, referencing the mother tongue. Amely adds of the Laugh and Learn group: It s very wonderful to have it it added a lot to the Jewish group it s been quite a lovely addition.