A Yidisher Bokher in Mexique

Written by:
Ilan Stavans
Fall 2013|5774
Part of issue number:

Attending Yiddish day school in Mexico, as I did from kindergarten to high school, might seem—I’m aware—like an anachronism. How on earth did mame loshn (Yiddish) thrive in such an un¬expected place? Yet for the thousands of students like me at the Alte Yidishe Shule, there was nothing strange about it. Ours was a private school built by indigent Jews, largely Bundists, from shtetlekh and urban centers in the Pale of Settlement who immigrated to the New World seeking a new life. Mexico welcomed them with open arms, while other countries closed the doors. Mexico promised them freedom. The Jews, in turn, were eager to prosper.

The curriculum had two tracks: one in Yiddish, the other in Spanish. The division was straightforward: in Yiddish we learned about our Jewishness; in Spanish, about our Mexicanness. To our teach¬ers, there was no clash, no division, no forking path between these identities. Why opt between them if you could choose both?

Such was the pride in learning that our shule was like a kheyder, a traditional elementary school, or maybe even a yeshive, a Talmudic academy, except that religion was replaced by culture. I don’t remember ever having a discussion about my beliefs in God in class. In fact, at a rather early age, I, along with several of my friends, declared ourselves agnostic. Not that it mattered. Since a bunch of our teachers were Holocaust survivors, I suspect they sympathized, having also rebelled against a God who didn’t appear to have done much to protect his people in recent times. I don’t remember ever seeing a prayer book at school. But maybe I’m misrepresenting them and some of the teachers were believers. In any case, they offered us the same thing Mexico had granted them: freedom.

I hardly remember reading the Torah in school. On the rare occasion we did, it was always as a series of mythical stories: a plotline with characters, good and evil, who behave all the time like the rest of us, trying to find meaning in life when none is available. Years later, when I was already an adult, I remember feeling struck by the religious emphasis in just about every episode. How could I have missed it? My gut feeling is that our teachers were ambivalent about it too. They liked storytelling, and that’s what they stressed. Today I’m grateful to them for introducing me to the Bible not as a Halakhic (legal) manual but as a depository of collective memory. For that reason, my relationship with it isn’t tyrannical.

In total, I had approximately eight years of Yiddish at the Alte Yidishe Shule. This formative education provided me not only with the language skills I needed to read the works of Mendele Moykher Sforim, Sholem Aleichem, Itzjok Leib Peretz, and the Singer brothers in the original; it also taught me that a life in two languages is a life experienced twice.

At some point in my middle school years there was a change of zeitgeist among Mexican Jews. It was the seventies. Israel was triumphant after the Yom Kippur War. It suddenly became obvious to parents, teachers, and administrators that Hebrew, not Yiddish, needed to be the school’s focus. So they started bringing shlikhim (emissaries from Israel), whose assignment it was to train us in the language of Chaim Nahman Bialik and Shmuel Yosef Agnon. To say we began to learn loshn kodesh (the holy tongue) would be a mistake, for these pedagogical Israeli ambassadors also didn’t see religion as their legacy. Be that as it may, the change was dramatic: Yiddish was pushed to a second tier; it became a second-class language, a thing of the past, in a school built on the premise that mame loshn was what made us Jewish.

I wasn’t alone in feeling uncomfortable. Not that I didn’t like Israel. I had family there. I wanted one day to travel to Jerusalem, to appreciate, with my own eyes, how Jews had transformed the desert. But I resented the way Yiddish was displaced. And that too became a lesson, for I understood that a language is a depository of cultural capital. As soon as that capital loses value, the language becomes passé.

After high school, I indeed traveled to the Middle East, then to Europe and Africa. It would take several years for me to recognize the value of the education I had received in Mexico. Since Yiddish had been os-tracized by my elders, I relegated it to a remote place of my mind.

Spanish became my principal means of communication, followed by English, which I learned when I immigrated to the United States in the mid-eighties. Today, that equation has been reversed.

It was only when I was a newly arrived Mexican immigrant in New York that I came to terms with Yiddish. It happened in a rather unexpected way, as I became exposed to the mixing of Spanish and English (called Spanglish today) in the subway and on the street, on TV, and on the radio. At first that barbaric hybrid, neither here nor there, made me cringe. My beloved Spanish language was being contaminated by an onslaught of Anglicisms. Should I do something to stop the pollution? However, I soon came to recognize that "a new Yiddish" was emerging in the United States, this time among Latinos, a vehicle of communication that depended on jazzy, never-ending code switching, just as Yiddish had done between Hebrew and German plus a variety of Slavic tongues.

Yiddish automatically regained a dominant place for me. I not only wanted to reclaim its status, for me and others, but also to study its history, its evolution, in order to measure the potential of Spanglish.

Nowadays Yiddish is an essential component of the way I look at the world. I use it to communicate with my mother and other relatives; I translate from it into Spanish and English; and I constantly introduce it in the classroom in courses dealing with the transformation of language and with the shaping of identities. I have a collection of Yiddish lexicons from which I draw whenever I write about the Darwinian way in which words go in and out of fashion. And, with regularity, I dream in Yiddish. In one recurrent dream, a teacher of mine from Di Alte Yidishe Shule insists I still haven’t submitted last week’s homework. I tell her I’ve been working on it. “Es kumt,” I assure her.

Ilan Stavans is an author and the Lewis-Sebring Professorin Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College.