By S.L. Wisenberg
“Shulamis,” the teacher says, as I knew she would, “vos herstu?”
Shulamis is my Yiddish name and the Yiddish teacher is asking what I hear, meaning, “What do you have to report?” The class nearly always begins this way, round-robin, like group therapy, like consciousness-raising. It’s all female, it so happens, though men have come and gone, mostly gone. Over the years we’ve learned of tsuris–trouble–with contractors, computer repairmen, auto mechanics, and adult children; births, deaths, and illness; weddings and bar mitzvahs attended; cruises and other travels; and often of current movies and plays. Since I saw a play Saturday night, I say just that, except that I say forshung instead of forshtellung, which means I attended a research. Once that’s cleared up, the teacher asks, “And what was it called?”
I improvise: “Di Vagina Monologuen.”
The middle word is not, as it happens, a cognate, and so we learn a new word: der mutterort, mother place. Of course we have to ask why a vagina is masculine (der) and the teacher reminds us that “beard” in Yiddish is feminine: di bord. She also tells us the Sanskrit word for vagina, yoni. I continue with my recital. I tell them that the writer was the performer, that she wore a jupke (skirt, but I meant kleyd, a dress) and no shoes. For a moment my fellow Yiddishists imagine that Eve Ensler performed topless.
The questions come at me thick and fast, in Yiddish and English:
“What is there to say?”
“You can’t talk about everything. That’s private.”
“Der mutterort,” I say, “iz shtum,” using the only word I can think of for “silent.” I’m thinking of the shtumer, or mute, letter aleph in the Yiddish alphabet.
“And the breasts,” a classmate asks, “they speak?”
“Yoh,” I say.
“Could I write a monologue about my nose?”
“It wouldn’t be very interesting.”
“The writer,” I say, “interviewed many women.”
“About their vaginas?”
“What did she ask them?”
I approximate: “If your vagina could wear something, what would it wear?”
“You mean underwear?” “Neyn,” I say. It made so much sense inside the theater, Ensler with her perfect shiny bob of hair, listing the answers women gave her–taffeta dress, mink–though even then it was hard to imagine, because how can you dress a part of you that is a passageway? In that semidarkness, it was easier to make the metaphorical leap. I wanted to say, “It’s like asking, ‘If you were a tree, what kind would you be?'” but the conditional is so difficult.
The conversation veers away and back, as the teacher tells us the word for “period” (pekel) and another student says that we’ve already learned it. But the rest of us are so forgetful that we deny learning anything until we’ve heard it ten times. It’s tricky to keep up with this wanted-dead-or-alive language, which few of us actually use outside each 90-minute session.
The class meets in the chapel of an Orthodox synagogue in West Rogers Park, but it’s sponsored by a nonsectarian Jewish organization. We used to meet in the library of a worn-out building on California Avenue–before it changed hands and became an Indian center. This chapel has a mehitzah, the wall that separates men and women at prayer. We meet in the women’s section, not because the group happens to be all female, but because there’s more room to move around. In this room a few blocks north of Devon, where we have learned there is no Yiddish word for “brunch” or “jogging,” we now learn the words damen-bandajz (ladies’ bandage) for sanitary napkin and klole for curse. We discuss whether God’s curse was menstruation or childbirth.
After class, we walk down the synagogue hallway talking in English about menstruation.
Later at home I look up “vagina” in my modern English-Yiddish dictionary. There are two words listed–di vagina, with a hard g, and di muttersheyd. I trust my teacher, though; she gives us the most current translations. I look for “tampon” (not there), “vulva” (missing), “clitoris” (gone), feeling uneasily like an 11-year-old looking up dirty words in the dictionary.
Does this mean that the folks who claim that Yiddish is dead are right, that the mameloshen–mother tongue–is not a living language? “Orgasm” (cognate) is listed, because, I assume, men have them. Same with “masturbation” (der onanism). “Penis” is a cognate, and its slang variations, schmuck and putz, are unlisted but quite at home in America.
For a moment the dictionary makes me feel partially disappeared, only half recognized. But then I think: For a few minutes, there we were–Orthodox and Conservative and secular Jewish women, hair covered and wildly uncovered–talking aloud and bilingually about vaginas as we sat by ourselves behind the mehitzah.