Year 2, Week 12: It's up to you New York
Published on Thursday, March 23, 2017 By Max Sparber
I have studied Yiddish for 430 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 266 hours
I have reviewed 4,821 individual flashcards
I'm going to New York this weekend and won't be lugging my massive Schaechter dictionary with me, but I don't want to have four days in which I add no new words to my collection of flashcards, so I have been working ahead, plugging in as many words as possible.
I think I have added enough to cover me during my trip. Now the challenge will be to see if I can actually peel away the time to study. Although there have been few days in the past 15 months I have failed to study, I have not been faced with the challenge of being in a city as distracting as New York. If I can manage to study there, I suppose I can manage to study anywhere.
I'm going out to New York for a few reasons. The first is that I haven't had a proper vacation in quite a long time and I am overdue. I've been back in the Twin Cities for five months, amazingly, and the move was stressful, as moves always are. I have been settling in at my new job, which has involved a steep learning curve, as happens with a new job.
We have mostly been homebodies since we moved back, largely because it is very cold in the winter and its wise just to curl up someplace warm. But it is starting to warm up, and I am starting to settle in at my job, and it is time to relax a little.
"Relax" may be the wrong word. I will be running around Manhattan a lot. I decided to take this trip, in part, because there is a Yiddish production of "God of Vengeance" and how can I do this project, be a playwright, be producing a Yiddish-themed play, and not take in some Yiddish theater?
There is also a lot of old-school Jewish stuff in New York that I cannot do in Minneapolis -- no tongue sandwiches, no Russian baths, no Yiddish newspapers. So I'll be peeking in on a lot of that stuff, as well as the sorts of things I have grouped in as part of my Jewish identity but are more peripheral. I will be going to a Ukrainian museum, as an example.
I will also likely hit a few Irish bars, although I have done a lot of tours of Irish New York.
I'm not sure why I haven't done this sort of deep dive into Jewish New York before. I suspect it is because it is already so much of who I am: My parents are native New Yorkers, and so I took frequent trips there when I was a boy. I spent a lot of time in New York delis and the like. But the truth is that as an adult I have spent a lot more time exploring the Jewish culture of Los Angeles, where I lived for six years, than that of New York.
I will probably do more of that on my next vacation, which will probably be to Los Angeles.
Having this blog incentives doing a lot more of this as well, as it gives me something to write about and I enjoy writing about it.
And there's something else. I will probably work it up into a more formal essay at some point, as it's still bouncing around in my bean. But I was reading about the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, which was an area in the far east of Russian set aside to be a Jewish region, with Yiddish as the official language (along with Russian). It was a disastrous experiment in a lot of ways, and one of the biggest disasters was that participants realized that Yiddish had been separated from Jewish cultural practices, and, as a result was used to propagandize Soviet ideas to young Jews, encouraging their assimilation.
So Yiddish isn't, in and of itself, enough to support a Jewish identity. Without being wedding to other Jewish practices, it can even serve the opposite purpose and help wean Jews away from the Jewish identity.
And what is identity? I guess I have been coming around to the idea that if your identity is internal, it is just a piece of self-identification that exists inside yourself, that you're Jewish because you know you're Jewish and because you feel somehow Jewish -- well, this strikes me as a weak identity, one that can be hard to maintain and is even hard to pass down to the next generation.
It is a stronger identity if you couple that feeling of being Jewish with actually doing things that are Jewish. I suppose I feel this way in part because my father was a research professor, and so I grew up with Behaviorism, which suggests that our internal world is, in large part, created by our external actions, and not the other way around. That we are what we do.
As regular readers of this site know, my Jewish identity is secular and my religious identity is atheist. So I am always looking for Jewish things to do, or to do things Jewishly, that are not explicitly religious. For the past 15 months, this has largely involved learning Yiddish. But language is just one thing, and, on its own, it is not enough, as the Jewish Autonomous Oblast taught us.
So I am going to New York to find Jewish things to do, or to do things Jewishly. I will report back.
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