Above: Sidney and his grandmother Bertha, posing for the photographer on the morning of Sidney’s Bar Mitzvah, 1954
Sidney Gross (1941–2016)
My mother and father only spoke Yiddish when they wanted to talk about something we children shouldn’t hear. The associations of Yiddish with spicy gossip gave it the overtones of a hidden excitement. I never did master the spoken tongue, but like many of my contemporaries, I can understand it when I hear it spoken. In retrospect, I can trace a dramatic decline in Yiddish through four generations. My grandparents spoke it fluently and only used English to communicate with outsiders. My parents used it only on special occasions. My generation understands but doesn’t speak it, and children today have lost it entirely. Yiddish, like Latin, was an international language, and time has passed it by.
For me, the essence of Yiddish lies in a limited number of familiar words. Most of my vocabulary consists of curses. In the movie Marathon Man, there is a scene in which an aging Jew and an ex-Nazi, each unknown to the other, become involved in a traffic accident. The Jew opens his car window and yells “Geh kachen ufen yam…” at which point the plot begins to thicken. Naturally, I recognized that particular phrase and I assume that many other in the movie audience did too. That, however, exhausts about 10% of my Yiddish vocabulary.
Balebusta has very positive connotations. It refers to a female who takes great pride in the neatness of her home. If you were dating a girl and her mother was “a real balebusta,” this was a plus for the daughter. She would no doubt inherit her mother’s propensities and insure domestic bliss for some lucky man.
My grandmother Bertha had the reputation of being a balebusta. I can remember sitting in her kitchen on an afternoon in late spring, supervising the preparation of a pot of holupchas (stuffed cabbage). It was hot and steamy in the room and several hours of work, not to mention the cost of the ingredients, had gone into the dish. (I should add that whenever my grandmother cooked, she acted as if she was feeding an army.) Finally, the holupchas were done, and I sat at the table, anticipating a sample. My grandmother lifted the huge pot from the stove and started carrying it toward the table. It got away from her and the holupchas spewed over the floor. I’ll never forget her reaction as she dauntlessly scooped the cabbage rolls back into the pot. “Don’t worry,” she said like the real balebusta she was. “My floor is so clean you can eat off it.” We did, and nobody got sick either.
According to Sidney, Bertha dispensed with written recipes, but spiced her cooking with quantities of Yiddish. “A soyne zoll es nit essen” she would say in self-praise of her holupchas: “An enemy should not eat it.” (for Bertha’s recipe for holupchas, turn to page 2.)
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