Year Two, Week 20: A Hiatus, of Sorts

 It's been a few weeks since I have posted, which is never a good sign on a blog. Life has gotten unexpectedly, and, to an extent, unpleasantly busy.

I am in preproduction of my play "Shaina," which I will post more about this week. I also had some stupid and embarrassingly trashy apartment problems. Without being too specific, people were using the parking lot outside our window for drug deals, and we discovered some of these same people were squatting in empty apartments in our building.

Additionally, I have started a new project, which I felt like I needed to do, as I was getting a little burned out on Yiddish. But when you do things that take a lot of time, that time must be borrowed from somewhere.

I have continued to study my Yiddish flashcards, but have taken a break from adding new ones. This is actually something I have been considering for a while. I have about 5,000 flashcards, and that's plenty for basic communication, but I barely know many of them. I have been thinking it might be worthwhile to stop plugging in as many new cards as fast as I can and concentrate on learning the ones I have already added.

So this is what I have been doing. It reduces the amount of time I spend on Yiddish from an hour-plus per day to a half-hour to 45 minutes, which is manageable. I think I will soon get back to adding in flashcards from my grammar book, because I want to be able to use the words I have effectively, but for the moment it has been a tremendous relief not to commit to so much time every single day, even if I have only really cleared up half an hour or so.

There also gets to be a point where you try something for a while and then revisit the experiment. I have always known that, studying on my own, Yiddish would be of limited practical value.

The American Jewish community has an affection for a hundred or so Yiddish words that is used as a sort of flavoring, but not much interest in Yiddish beyond that. There are a few dedicated Yiddish cultists, and there are communities of Haredi Jews who use Yiddish as a vernacular, but they are largely located in New York. There just isn't much opportunity for me to use Yiddish in a day to day way.

Knowing this, and knowing that things are not likely to change for me, I have to ask myself what degree of commitment I wish to continue to have to studying Yiddish as a vernacular, as I have been doing.

I don't have an answer for that. I genuinely love the language, and I love studying it, and so I think there will always be a place for continuing to do so. And if there is one thing I have learned, it is that one should not make decisions when one is feeling a little burned out.

I develop interests sometimes that I pursue for a little while, and then I lose interest and just never really return to the subject. But there are other things where my interest wanes, and then returns, and then wanes, and so on. These are things that I continue to revisit for my entire life.

Yiddish has been one of those things since I was a teenager. And I know if I got frustrated now and stopped studying, in a year or so I would regret it, because my interest would return and I would find myself frustrated that I forgot so much of what I spent a year and a half studying.

I think it would help me to learn some tools for maintaining what I have learned when my interest cools, so that I don't have to start over again from scratch when I regain interest. And I think it would help for me to learn how to pare back a little when I start feeling burnout, instead of just pushing ahead, because that it one thing that is guaranteed to make me walk away from something completely.

So, for now, I will just continuing reviewing existing flashcards until I feel motivated to add new ones, which could be in a few days or could be longer.

I'm also kicking around the idea of studying another language, but am not ready to add that in yet. I feel like my Yiddish studies have given me tremendous tools for acquiring language, and it might help me to start learning a language that is actually used as a vernacular, so I can get some practice with a language that I can actually use.

It would probably be Spanish, which I have studied in the past, but who knows? One of the things that first got me involved with this Yiddish project was reading books by self-educated poly-linguists, and the idea of speaking a number of languages was very exciting to me.

We will see, though. As I said, I am very busy right now, and sometimes you have to respect how limited your time is.


Yiddish cowboy

I just want to talk about the fact that I listen to country music. A lot of country music. It represents the largest percentage of my music collection. I listen to it when I go to sleep at night, often for the entire night. I listen to it when I'm going to work and when I'm returning from work. I was in a country band for a year (albeit a novelty country band) and once released an album of country songs.

I mention this because this is not the sort of thing usually associated with Jews. In fact, it is so not associated with Jews that Kinky Friedman's entire career is rooted in how not Jewish country music is presumed to be.

I could mount a defense of country music. It's an extraordinarily diverse form, and it doesn't just draw from a dazzling variety of musical influences (if you have a band with a banjo, lap steel, and yodeling, you've combined African, Hawaiian, and Alpine influences), but also features an unexpectedly diverse selection of performers. I could name Jewish country performers, including Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel, Shel Silverstein, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and, in many of his songs, Bob Dylan.

But I don't need to defend country. I just need people to know that Jews are varied. We have wide-ranging tastes and interests.

I don't remember precisely when I started listening to country music. I think it was when I was a child. I had, and have, a taste for cowboy movies, and like cowboy songs very much. I grew up at the tail end of the 1960s and early 70s folk scare, and so we learned various American folk music styles in school, including square dancing and songs of the American west.

It was still a time when there were representation of cowboys just about everywhere. I watched cowboy movies for fun as a boy and with a growing interest as I got older; I began to increasingly appreciate how the genre tackled the mythology of the American west. Cowboy movies had moved into deeply revisionist and sometimes spectacularly weird territory by the 70s, and so they were less a celebration of the story of the American west than a troubled and troubling look at a time period that often was genocidal and psychotic.

I end up doing cowboy stuff now and then. I had my own cowboy show in Omaha, where I twirled guns and yodeled and sang cowboy songs and played cowboy movies for children. I wrote a play about Buffalo Bill that was produced in Omaha, and another about the Indian Congress of the Trans Mississippi Exposition that also played in Omaha. I recently learned that a cowboy poem I wrote is being anthologized in a collection of that sort of poetry.

I still dress in cowboy duds every so often, and feel usually comfortable in them. I'll probably get back to wearing them more, as casual wear, because I like them and I want to. It's my birthday today, and I might just swing by a western store uptown and treat myself to some more western gear.

But it's not just cowboy stuff for me. I listen to all sorts of country music: String groups, hobo songs, countrypolitan, outlaw country, country gospel. I listen to a lot of soul and jazz covers of country songs. I listen to country rock and rap music that borrows from country themes. I listen to cowpunk and soundtracks to blackspoitation films set in the American west and country music from Australia. I am a product of the 70s, and as a product of the 70s I grew up with working class rebel films and their music: Trucker songs, honky tonk fight songs, songs about factory workers storming off their jobs and urban cowboys drinking at corner dives.

So that's me, or a part of me, anyway. I lived in England for a little while, and that left its mark, especially in my taste for folk horror movies in which ancient paganism rises in rural English towns. I am Minnesotan, and so have a great love for local culture, including wild rice soups, plays about ice fishing, and lumberjack stories.

I try not to judge my own tastes, because we like what we like, and generally there should be no shame in feeling passion for and taking pleasure in art. I know that sometimes I seem to be a few different people, instead of just one guy, because my tastes are simultaneously so odd and so far-ranging, but they're all me.

And I know a lot of these seem really off-the-beaten path for a Jew. I was wearing my cowboy shirt and hat and discussing Yiddish with my girlfriend, and she mentioned that this might seem odd to someone passing by, a cowboy talking about Yiddish. An Irish-American cowboy walking a tiny one-eyed dog in downtown Minneapolis talking about Yiddish.

But this is also a Jew. This is really, authentically me, doing the things I like, and it would probably be worth it for people to expand what they presume a Jew is, what a Jew looks like, how a Jew dresses, what a Jew listens to, and who you might hear speak Yiddish.

Because I know I'm a little off-the-beaten path. But I'm not that off the beaten path. It's just that the path is broader and longer and, frankly, weirder, than people give it credit for.


Year 2, Week 18: The birthday

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 462 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 298 hours
I have reviewed 5,090 individual flashcards

Tomorrow is my 49th birthday. I started this project like I start all my projects, from a fairly absurd declaration that I then try to live up to. In this case, I decided that I thought all Ashkenazi Jews should be able to speak Yiddish by the time they are 50.

This is a product of my own experiences, where, when I was younger, I would sometimes find myself in the company of older Jews who would, on occasion, spontaneously and comfortably switch into speaking Yiddish -- sometimes a word or two, sometimes a sentence, sometimes complete conversations.

I don't know how fluent they actually were. I used to play guitar, and I was pretty good at it, but I would go to guitar stores and watch others sit down and play something utterly astonishing. Sometimes these people were genuinely terrific guitarists, but sometimes they were okay guitarists like me who had a few really impressive tricks. I had a few really impressive tricks too, and am sure when I ran through them people thought I was much better than I was.

So it is with everything. It's hard to gauge competence, especially when you are comparatively incompetent. Maybe I know enough Yiddish now so that the younger me would have been impressed.

I have a year left until I am 50, and I will be curious as to my comfort with the language then. It's starting to click for me, to an extent. Words come easier to me when I want them, and I am able to construct fairly complicated thoughts out of the words I know. I increasingly understand Yiddish when I hear it spoken, or at least some of it -- enough to get the gist of a sentence. I know my grammar is poor -- I mostly built sentences as though I were speaking in English. But not entirely. I have now memorized or partially memorized may 500 phrases and proverbs, and I find myself building new sentences out of them, and those new sentences are presumably closer to how they would be said in Yiddish.

I have always had an image in mind when working on this project -- me at age 50 sitting in a deli reading a Yiddish newspaper. I'm not sure where that image came from, but I am a long way away from it. While my oral Yiddish skills are coming along apace, my literacy is probably dreadful, because I never work on that. I panic at seeing Yiddish in small print, because it's so small and there are so many Yiddish words, and so I never do any reading at all.

I must rectify this. I probably know enough Yiddish now to be able to read children's books, and most of my English acquisition came through reading; I don't know why this wouldn't also be the case with Yiddish.

I shall have to make plans to address this. I don't actually have anybody to speak Yiddish with just now, but I can always have a relationship with a book.