The Mishpacha
                                                                                                              By Rachel Frankford 


I grew up speaking an English that was peppered with certain Yiddish phrases. An off-balance person wasn’t crazy or nuts but meshug ener. If we made our parents proud we gave them naches. A hot day made us shvitz. My grandfather jokes around with everyone; he’s a real kibitzer. I grew up around Jewish people, and it wasn’t till I lived in Spain and Colombia that I had no one to speak “Yinglish” with. I spoke my second language, Spanish, at work, on the street, with friends, with a boyfriend. Speaking English with other Americans felt like a relief as we filled our speech with all the slang and cultural references that we could not use when speaking Spanish or speaking English with people from other countries. There was no one, though, who knew what a gonif was, or what it meant to feel verklempt. The mishpucha (family) wasn’t there.


Yiddish grammar and much of its lexicon is Germanic, with other vocabulary from Hebrew and Slavic languages. It’s a record of Jewish migration through Eastern European starting in the late middle ages. Today there are about half a million speakers worldwide. Before the Holocaust, there were 11 million. In the United States, Yiddish is spoken mainly by the elderly and the ultra-Orthodox. My 11-year-old Orthodox cousin speaks it with some of her playmates.


Even though I don’t know more than some isolated words and phrases and can’t put together even a simple sentence, I decided to memorialize some Yiddish proverbs in my letterpress printing class at the Fleisher Art Memorial. I picked two that stuck out to me. “If a cat laid eggs, it would be a hen”: there’s no point in wishing for things to be other than what they are. I like the humor and memorable imagery (a saltier version, by the way, puts it: “if my grandmother had balls, she would be my grandpa”). For the second proverb, I wanted something to do with love. This was the closest I could find to romance: “three things cannot be hidden: love, coughing and poverty.”


You’ll notice that both sayings feature everyday objects, everyday problems. Yiddish was not the language of the powerful, of machers. It was the language of humble people, often poor, living in societies that did not want them. “Some laughter, some tears”: Yiddish was practical, irreverent. If Hebrew was for devotion to God, in Yiddish even God was cut down to size: az Got volt gelebt oif der erd, volt men im all eh fenster oisgeshlogen. “If God lived on earth, people would break his windows.” If God lived on earth, I’d give him these prints to decorate His walls. So he should remember us, the mishpucha.




Rachel Frankford teaches third grade at Southwark Elementary. Rachel joined the Philadelphia Writing Project in 2016 when she attended the Invitational Summer Institute
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