Man trakht un got lakht: man thinks and God laughs, the Yiddish saying goes. I grew up thinking of Yiddish as an enemy and am now (among other things) a translator of Yiddish literature. It was a hidden enemy, I should add, because as a boy in New York in the 1950’s, I could not have said what the precise menace was of a language that arrived harmlessly at the front door every morning in the form of the Morgn Zhurnal, the daily Yiddish newspaper that my father subscribed to along with the New York Times. It was from the Morgn Zhurnal, which copied most of its news from the Times of the day before, that I learned Yiddish. Equipped with the previous day’s Times, the German I was studying in high school, and a good Hebrew education, I taught myself to read it.
Yet Yiddish, the mother tongue of both my parents and a language used by them matter-of-factly when there was a need for it, was one of the few things that could get my father, an even-tempered man, visibly angry. My one childhood memory of him in a rage is of his shouting at Yiddish—or rather, at a friend of his named Ben Dworkin whose wife was the daughter of the Yiddish poet Solomon Bloomgarden, better known by the pen-name of Yehoash. I cannot remember exactly what Dworkin and my father were talking about, or what made my father lose his temper and begin to shout, but it was clear to me from their argument that Ben Dworkin and Yiddish were on one side of a great divide and my father was on the other.