Larry Yudelson has some exciting lexicographical news (if you’re excited by Yiddish):
Given its physical heft, it’s no surprise that the new Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary published last month by Indiana University Press is the work of generations. Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath, its editor, worked on the 856-page, 4 1/2-pound volume for some 20 years in her Teaneck basement. At its core are words collected a generation earlier by her father Mordkhe Schaechter in the family’s house in the Bronx. For many of those years, when Gitl was a teenager, she helped her father as he cataloged Yiddish words at the dining room table.
But before that, the family legend goes, there was her grandfather, Khayem-Benyomen Shekhter, and his enthusiasm for the Yiddish language. The memory of his enthusiasm is tied to a date more than a century ago: 1908, the year he made sure to attend the great Yiddish language conference in his hometown of Czernowitz, at the time part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Great hook, right? When you mention Czernowitz/Cernăuți/Czerniowce/Csernovic/Черновцы, now Chernivtsi, you awaken all my unearned Hapsburg nostalgia. The family story is amazing, not least the bit where Mordkhe married Charne share “an unusual determination to raise their children as Yiddish speakers”:
There were after-school classes five days a week in the Yiddish Sholem Aleichem School and summers at Yiddish-speaking Camp Hemshekh.
And there was “Beynbridzhifke” — what her parents called the corner of Bainbridge Avenue in the north Bronx, where they settled alongside Mordkhe’s sister Beyle, who published poems in Yiddish, and the family of Joshua Fishman, an American-born Yiddishist who became a dean at Yeshiva University, an expert in bilingualism and author of “Yiddish in America.” (He also wrote the article on YIVO’s website about the Czernowitz conference; the Yiddish world is not so large these days.) From the Yiddish perspective, it was a three-house shtetl.
Three Yiddish-speaking families may not seem like a lot — it would have been an unimaginably small galus half a century earlier — but it was enough for a satisfying Yiddish-speaking game of hide-and-seek. Gitl’s father created a children’s club that he dubbed Enga-Benga — the Yiddish equivalent of the nursery rhyme “eeny meeny miny mo.”
[. . .]
Gitl went to Barnard, majoring in Russian. Clearly growing up as a linguist’s assistant had an impact. She also studied Yiddish at the Jewish Teachers Seminary/Herzliah, an institution founded to provide teachers to secular Yiddish schools..Then she went to nursing school and became a nurse — a profession she still practices.
Her older sister, Rukhl, also studied at both Barnard and the Jewish Teachers Seminary. Rukhl went on to get a masters in education. She taught Yiddish at the Kinneret Day School in Riverdale before being recruited as a writer for the Yiddish-language Forverts newspaper. In March she became the paper’s editor — the first American-born chief of the 119-year-old publication.
As a teenager, Rukhl picketed the Forverts with her siblings, parents, and other members of Yungtruf – Youth for Yiddish, an organization her father helped start. Their beef with the Yiddish newspaper was that it was published in the traditional Yiddish spelling, rather than the modernized, systematized spelling that Mordkhe and YIVO had fought for. It took a generation, but the Forverts changed its spelling. Now, Rukhl has overseen a partial retreat from YIVO style, as she welcomes in chasidic writers without insisting on a spelling makeover.
[. . .]
For Gitl’s three children, it wasn’t enough just to be fluent in Yiddish. They also had to speak Tamil with their father, Meylekh Viswanath, a native of India (and an occasional writer for this paper). Gitl and Meylekh met at a Yiddish retreat. Where else?
There are moments of high drama:
And one day Gitl discovered that the files she had labored over for years were stuck in a word processor that was no longer compatible with her new computer. “All that work could not be transferred to the new system,” she said. “I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown. Really, I didn’t know if I would live to see this dictionary.[…]
I could quote endlessly, but go, read it, you won’t be sorry.