I grew up on a street full of languages. I heard Yiddish every day from my parents and grandparents and from the families of my friends. There was Italian around the corner, Cuban Spanish down the block, Russian in the recesses of the subway station. Some of my earliest memories are of their sounds. But there were also words of what seemed to be my own family’s making and that I have found in no dictionaries: konditterei, a strange blend of Yiddish and Italian calibrated to describe the self-important café set; vachmalyavatet, a tongue-twister used to signify complete exhaustion; lachlat, a cross between a poncho and a peacoat that my father pointed out one afternoon.
Still, there was always English, always the desire, in my father’s father’s idiom, to be a “Yenkee.” My mother was a speech therapist in the New York City schools; my father, a history and English teacher. For the first decade of my life, we lived a dream of bettering ourselves through English. We tried to lose the accent of the immigrant. We memorized poetry. Days I would spend with Walt Whitman (de facto poet laureate of Brooklyn) until I was called in, O Captain-ing together with him straight to supper. I read Beowulf in junior high, and in the arc of Anglo-Saxon or the lilt of Chaucer’s Middle English I found words that shared the Germanic roots of Yiddish. There was that prefix for the participle, ge-, in all those languages. If Grendel’s mother was gemyndig, mindful, remembering, harboring a grudge, then so too was my mother. Everything in my family was gehacktet—ground up, hacked to bits, whether it was the chicken livers that we spread on toast or the troubles that beset us all (the Yiddish phrase “gehacktet tsuris,” hacked up troubles, has always stayed with me. I think of Grendel’s leavings— the dismembered bodies of the Danes— with no more apt phrase).
Read a bit more here.