Sunday, October 5, 2014

Beethoven and Yiddish


Many people have asked me to tell the story of how a Beethoven sonata is related to how people speak Yiddish today. Okay, I will take a crack at it. But a warning, it is very politically incorrect.

First, some background. My wife, spoke five languages fluently, English, German, Yiddish, French, and Hebrew, where German was her best because she has studied it most intensely and spoke multiple dialects, including archaic ones; played flute, alto flute, piccolo, recorders, historical flutes, piano, harpsichord, and harp; had received performance certificates from two music conservatories, one in France and one in Chicago; had studied music with Helen Kotas Hirsch, the first woman to be a first chair with a major symphony in the United States, the Chicago Symphony; and had received a Masters degree in musicology from the University of Chicago where her major interest was 18th-century German music theory (meaning she was unemployable).

My daughter, who has Down's syndrome, takes cello lessons. One day her teachers had a concert, had the kids perform and, at the end Rachel's teacher, on cello, and another lady, on piano, played a Beethoven sonata (I could be wrong here in terms of the exact form but not the composer). When I returned from work, my wife told me about the performance of the teachers, saying, "They were very nice players. Note perfect. But something was missing. Beethoven was an angry man: it needed testosterone".

Learning her Yiddish at the feet of her grandfather, who was originally from Slonim, meant her Yiddish was Litvishe, generally considered the most educated Yiddish. This was further informed, needless to say, by her intensive of study of German. One day she read an article in the New Yorker about Gen. Petraeus' s follies. She complained to me that the author used a Yiddish expression, very earthy, and took a whole paragraph to explain the meaning and asked why he did not simply just translate it. I responded that the author probably did not know the meaning of the words but remembered his grandfather using the expression and thus gathered a vague sense of it.  The expression was "ven der putz stand, saychel  gehen drerd" or when the penis stands, common sense goes to hell. Never a truer thing said.

This then led into a discussion of how the real emotional impact of Yiddish has been lost when it is studied in universities as a dry desiccated thing or spoken by the very Orthodox who are not educated in the secular literature of Yiddish. She became very emotional and finally blurted out: "These people speak Yiddish, like women play Beethoven". Even I was taken aback by this statement.

I hope you are not too offended by this but that was my wife, exquisitely educated and willing to speak her mind.