You're nuts, I thought.
I never knew my maternal grandfather, Yankl Sroluk, as he had passed away in the mid 1950's, and I was born in '59. My grandparents were from the Pale of Settlement: Korycin and Janowa, outside the main city of Bialystok. The Jews from that area, as well as Vilna and Minsk Gubernia, who settled in Congress Poland at the end of the 19th century, were known as Litvaks (Lithuanian Jews); they spoke with the same dialect.
My mother communicated to her mother in Yiddish, so I heard the language up until my grandmother's death, in 1970. Years later, while unearthing my roots, I was struck by a fierce determination to speak, read and write Yiddish. If for no other reason, I reasoned Yiddish was the language of choice to use on the Other Side with dead ancestors. Over a dozen years ago, thumbing through the Guide to Jewish Washington in search of Yiddish classes in Seattle, I found my mentor: Ruth Emmerman Peizer.
I still remember my first meeting with Ruth. I missed the class she gave at the Jewish Federation Building by a few minutes. I had come straight from a Nutcracker matinee.
"I know I'm late for class," I said, huffing and puffing. "Can I have a private lesson—please?"
She was just about to leave the room. I noticed her orangey-red hair, multi-colored scarf, and dazzling beads. "I don't offer private lessons," she said, as she gathered her books and materials. I could tell Ruth was in a hurry to see me off.
"I'm sorry I missed the class. I play in Nutcracker at the Opera House, and the show ended late."
"Nutcracker? Really?" She set her books back on the long table. "Tell me, what instrument do you play?"
"Violin?" The dark eyebrows raised. "One of my most talented students is a violinist—Wendy Marcus from the Mazeltones. Now she's terrific. You know Wendy?"
"I know of her," I replied.
"Let me hear you read some Yiddish." Ruth pulled out Yiddish for School and Home. "Don't worry," she said. "There's transliteration on the side. But I teach using the Hebrew alphabet, so if you're serious about Yiddish, you'll have to learn your alef beys. I suppose you know all ready to read from right to left—"
After recalling my grandmother's voice, I pulled myself together and offered my best shot. After the Yiddish audition, Ruth declared, "You're a Litvak!"
And I felt as if I had returned home.
And home is where I returned a couple of nights ago, joining Ruth (Rochel) in her beautiful West Seattle house for dinner. We had a lot of catching up to do. I brought over-cooked curried chicken, and Rochel didn't complain. I knew I should have brought Chinese instead.
"Malkele, (the diminutive of my name in Yiddish, which means Queen), you've experienced some bumps in the road. We all have."
I took a sip of Chardonnay. "What about you, Rochel? You lost your husband Sam, broke both hips, and required a pace-maker. That's no picnic."
"But I have the most wonderful friends. And you, Malkele, I could never give up on you."
"I've been a lousy friend, Rochel. Every bump in the road causes me to hide out, to run for cover. I've been out of touch. Yet, you're always there for me. I want to be like you."
She leaned against her walker, and rolled it to the freezer. "Let's have ice-cream. I've got the best in town." She scooped Husky's Chocolate Orange Chip into two glass bowls. We reminisced about our Yiddish lessons together over the years.
Through her humanitarian aid contacts with the Baltic States, Rochel had made it possible for me to connect with Holocaust survivors in Vilnius. I was escorted like a true queen around the Lithuanian city in 1996, and taken to the shrine which was the conservatory of Jascha Heifetz's childhood. Through Ruth Peizer's knowledge and commitment to the Yiddish language, I learned to read, write, and even speak fluently enough to challenge my mother.
Of Ruth Peizer, my late mother would say: Du host a tsveitn mama.
Here's what I have to say: I should be so lucky.
Photo of Ruth Peizer 2008 by Marjorie Talvi