Yiddish sing-along connects the dots to my familys rebel past

I used to have a major hang-up with Yiddish. Why? Well, it was kind of complicated. It was one part negative associations with my grandparents, one part revulsion for the sentimentality of old Jewish kitsch — the paintings of dancing rabbis, Barbra Streisand singing selections from “Fiddler on the Roof” (English notwithstanding), etc. …

I didn’t feel at home in my grandparents’ home.

I can now make amends for the rash views of my youth. I’ve actually seen the fine and rather intense movie version of “Fiddler” and fallen under the spell of Isaac Bashevis Singer. I have a new appreciation for the life of my great-great-grandparents — and for the huge transformation across the generations that led from the shtetls to my San Francisco apartment.

If you told me a couple of years ago that I was going to sing along with a bunch of total strangers, I would have laughed. Now, if you topped it all off by saying the language was Yiddish, I’m not sure if I would have simply chortled or asked you to leave.

But here I am. I did it. I went to a Yiddish sing-along at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. Mostly it was just fun, but at times it was also mysterious, a descent into some kind of Ashkenazi cultural rabbit hole.

After getting through the tight security of the library building, I came to a plain meeting room — just a bunch of plastic chairs and a piano. Very modern, very clean. But it was packed. Most of the group were probably born before World War II, but when the “bim boms” and “oy yoy yoy’s” started popping and bouncing in a chorus, things had a youthful energy that traveled back in time.

I rollicked with some serious Yiddishkeit myself.

I set aside my cynicism and burst into song surrounded by Lithuanian bubbes, scholars, klezmer hipsters and devotees of Sholem Aleichem.

I found myself in the Jewish universe that gave birth to my grandparents, all now deceased, that I could only remember in pieces.

Phrases, mannerisms, a fragment of family history.

Singing the songs, the bits came to mind. We sang “Dzhankoye,” a rousing ditty about the Jews who worked at a collective farm near Simferopol (in the Ukraine), with its defiant verse:

Who says Jews can only be traders
Who eat greasy broth with mandlen
And can’t be workers?
Only our enemies could say that —
Jews, spit in their faces!

I thought of my great-grandmother Yetta Shor, who had to sneak out of Poland under a false name to avoid going to prison for organizing factory workers.

I got it. The Yiddishkeit was the Judaism that my family believed in but didn’t have a name for. This was the spirit of the Levines, Schwartzes, Shors and Bornsteins, bickering immigrant communists and socialists, leaving behind the culture of the old country but still speaking bits of the language. Yiddish was reserved for emotion — mundane thoughts were for English. They dipped into the river of exclamation.

I wasn’t the only one enjoying a cultural retrospective. The room was filled with smiles as memories were refreshed, neglected language skills were nourished, knowledge was tested.

And what kind of Yiddish experience would it be without oodles of kvetching? The crowd argued about Litvak vs. Galitzianer pronunciations of the lyrics, and about the quality of the translations. Sometimes people called out that we had forgotten additional verses that they proceeded to sing admonishingly.

At one point, one of the more senior members of the crowd uttered a remark critical of the current U.S. president. Suddenly the room was alive with muttering and catcalls, political debate and calls for calm. An old man with a gravelly voice shouted above the fray, “Let’s just argue about the music, please!”

I smiled and felt at home.

Jay Schwartz plays the trap drums in San Francisco, where he lives with his wife and canine. He can be reached at [email protected]