Reconnecting with my beloved and sassy ancestry, thanks to the good folks at Duolingo
You ever stop to think how completely upside down this whole … 15 months have been?
Look at your entryway hooks full of somewhat and/or very smelly old masks and think, “If I explained this to past me, I wouldn’t believe it?”
Or take a second and remember the pulsing, communal, almost religious energy of a show? How we all used to experience music together in this epic connected space that we took for granted? Before we knew how many droplets were being expelled? Before (oh, god, before), we knew what the fuck the word droplet meant?
15 months, my friend. It’s been 15 months of this.
15 months ago I was scouring the internet trying to find viable information on this virus that none of my family and friends were taking seriously. It looked bad, I told José. The only other people who seemed to agree were my friends Rivka and Elad. “Who cares if everyone thinks I’m crazy,” I thought. “We should cut the Asia tour short and postpone the US shows, to be safe.” We’d start again in May, I thought.
Despite being just categorically and heartbreakingly wrong about a May 2020 reopening, I’m grateful for the intergenerational trauma that helped me look around and trust my worried Jewish gut.
Especially now that we live in Holland, where just about no one we know wears masks or takes this virus seriously still. I gently and constantly remind everyone I meet to put their masks on, to please cover their nose, too, to not pull the mask down when speaking. Almost no one in the conservatory wears masks indoors.
Who knows, maybe they’re right. I respect their choices, and I also have a consistent bruise on my nose from wearing my N95 infinitely more hours than it was intended to be worn.
I’m confident in this decision. Because my great grandfather looked around Berlin in the 30s and thought, “Who cares, if everyone thinks I’m crazy. I should get out of here now and start a new life from scratch somewhere else, to be safe.”
That instinct, despite his whole family laughing at him, is the reason he survived. It’s also the reason I knew no other living ancestors except for his brother, Jules.
I didn’t know my great grandfather, but oh man did I love Jules. Jules was a brilliant, fiercely private and generous person. A Holocaust survivor. A stoic, quiet, self made man. He and his wife Gusty lived uptown and were the kind of progressive, artistic, inquisitive Jews I aspire toward. By the time I came into the picture, Gusty had died and Jules kept very much to himself. He lived on 90th and Riverside, and despite our 80 year age difference, he became my unlikely best friend in 1993 at a family holiday party in Washington Heights.
I didn’t have a lot of friends as a kid, so this tracks. Middle school girls in the 90s were not big on curly haired girls who dressed up as Lucy Stone and Georgia O’Keefe for Halloween. Though later this would begin to wound me, in the beginning I didn’t mind, because I had a way cooler person to talk to. I remember effusively inviting my then 87 year old bestie to my first show. I knew he was in the audience. I sang to him and my dad. It’s a perfect core memory I draw on often. He brought roses. I had my mom take this glorious photo to show you, straight from the family album.
When he wasn’t being my favorite audience, Jules was teaching me family history. He loved art and culture. He had a spectacular collection of tea cups from around the world. He’d make me a cup of rose tea. We’d sit in his living room and trace our ancestry and his journey to America in a huge atlas. I can still remember the smell of that atlas. Musty, comforting. It lives in my parents’ home now.
Here he is reading it, extending the knowledge to my brother Jonathan, too.
I’ll always love New York for being a safe harbor for Jules, and I try to hold him with me now wherever I go. José proposed to me with the same ring Jules gave to Gusty.
Now that I’m in Europe, a couple of hours from where he fled, I think of him often. And the great news today is that thanks to the glorious folks at Duolingo, I’m able to learn the language that his family spoke.
Yes, as you may or may not have heard, Yiddish has come to Duolingo. This week it is my absolute favorite thing on earth.
Here’s the thing about Duolingo Yiddish: They are honoring one of the main reasons I’d want to learn the language, which is its absolutely unparalleled sass. Observe, for example, this glorious sentence they had me translate, and tell me that you’ll ever see that in French Duolingo.
How about this one?
Of course the language of half my ancestors considers “Or what?” a full sentence. That’s right. My spirit doesn’t speak in English. It speaks in YIDDISH.
Duolingo Yiddish gets this.
Duolingo Yiddish also understands my competitive side. All week I’ve been in what I consider, with no knowledge otherwise, a friendly battle with a human named Nhi Nhi in Vietnam. Though I am slated to win this battle, I almost didn’t want to, because I’m so impressed with Nhi Nhi’s drive.
My apologies if you’re reading this, Nhi Nhi of Vietnam. I’ve got a near century of familial trauma pushing me plus a competitive spirit that has had no outlet for 15 months. You are a Yiddish scholar, and a worthy opponent. Please don’t feel discouraged by your second place.
But the facts remain: I am the victor. And that makes me feel all sorts of joy.
And some sort of love. A love for my ancestors, for Jules, for his perished brothers, sisters, mother, father, cousins. A love for the city I’m in, for people like Iris and her community who continue to thrive. And a love for my community who’s been on this already, specifically old and brilliant friends Sandy Fox and Shifra Whiteman. Two ladies who have been fluently speaking and living Yiddish for some time (check! them! out!). I’m happy to even remotely catch up to their badassery.
And then, of course, we have this album, for which I feel lots of love. I’m teaching in person now, and I keep encouraging my students to feel fear, but not let it sit in the driver’s seat. So you want to hear some wild and exciting news? In their honor, I’ve decided to face my own fears and premiere Silver Bullet/Song for Sima for you at a video shoot in a few weeks. I’ll have a new Yamaha synth I’m wildly excited about to play, and I’m gonna take both the song and the synth out for a test drive. I’ll also be featuring a student, Tisha (they/them) whom I met while teaching at the pop department of Conservatorium van Amsterdam. Tisha blew me away and made me love music again. I can’t wait for you to meet them.
Till then, איך האָב דיך ליב, aka I love you in my new/old language.
ps: if you’re new here or have been perusing but unsure you wanna join the community, the below helps these go straight to your inbox like the letter they’re intended to be.