Anne Umansky

From Brooklyn to Chaucer, Yiddish Has Been Integral to Donor’s Life

When Anne Umansky was a graduate student working on a degree in literature, she faced a particularly daunting assignment: reading Chaucer in the original Middle English.

Like her fellow students, Umansky relied on a glossary to help her master the text. But she had another trick up her sleeve: the Yiddish she spoke as a child growing up in Brooklyn. Thanks to some perhaps unexpected similarities between Yiddish and Middle English—both of which were influenced by Germanic languages—“there were certain words and constructions that I could recognize,” she says.

“It really was an amusing realization, that Yiddish helped me read Chaucer in Middle English.”

The daughter of Latvian Jewish immigrants, Umansky, like many children in her Williamsburg neighborhood in the 1920s and ’30s, spoke Yiddish as her first language. Her father died while she was quite young, but she remembers her mother being a faithful reader of the Forverts and of Yiddish literature. When Umansky was nine, she says, her mother sent her to classes to learn to read and write Yiddish.

Umansky went on to teach English and literature at New York’s John Jay College and then, after a move to Massachusetts, at Suffolk University and Bunker Hill Community College before her retirement. Although she doesn’t have opportunities to speak the language now as she did as a child, she says, “I continue to speak Yiddish, but my syntax is not quite pure.”

“It’s a very intimate language. It’s a language that lends itself to humor."

And as a lover of language, she continues to enjoy the richness and playfulness of Yiddish. “It’s a very intimate language,” Umansky says. “It’s a language that lends itself to humor. There’s humor in the syntax very often, the way things are emphasized by the syntax in a sentence so that they spring out at you.

“It also lends itself to irony. Tone, I think, is extremely important in Yiddish,” she continues.

Umansky has been a longtime supporter of the Yiddish Book Center, recently establishing a charitable gift annuity to help the Center continue its work preserving a language and culture that has meant so much to her. She chose that vehicle for giving, she says, because it offers her tax benefits and income “while supporting an institution that feels personal to me as an extension of my life's history.

“Right from the beginning I liked the whole idea of the Yiddish Book Center because it’s so positive,” she explains. “I think people have responded to it and it’s been as successful as it’s been because it’s so joyful.”

To learn how you can establish a charitable gift annuity to support the Yiddish Book Center, please email or call Zvi Jankelowitz at 413-256-4900, ext. 117.

From Kvel, the newsletter of the Yiddish Book Center (Spring 2015)