Applied Nostalgia

My daughter and I had a fight last night (she's four; it happens) and we made up with me singing songs to her. The songs were in Yiddish, the language we speak at home. I was randomly singing whichever Yiddish songs happened to come into my head, and in the middle I thought: Isn't this ridiculous? The last three songs were a Bund ballad about blowing up a German ammunition convoy; a paean to Vilna; and the Partisans' Song. (I'm not usually so historical, but there you are.) It struck me, not for the first time, how unrooted my Yiddish language and culture is in my individual, quite ordinary-American-Jewish experience, and how an outside, Eastern-European-born observer might think that my use of these historically freighted songs is disrespectful, jokey, or obscene. (Some do.) What do I know of guerilla warfare, Jewish Vilna (I mean its physical bricks-and-mortar), or the routes of the Baal Shem Tov (the subject of another song)?

I used to answer "No" (a little hurt) when asked if my attachment to things Yiddish was due to nostalgia. How can I be nostalgic for something I wasn't born into? But that's precisely the point. We yearn for what we are not conditioned against. The tension of my ideological attachment to Yiddish is to be aware of the sunken past while not drifting away from the present in which Yiddish, very much extant, is quite un-Eastern European.

As for nostalgia, Jews couldn't get along without it. One of my daughter's favorite songs is Yah Ribon, whose last verse recollects the Temple. I never saw that either.

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